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Title: Waterloo
Author: Belloc, Hilaire, 1870-1953
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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       WATERLOO CAMPAIGN                                9

       ACROSS THE SAMBRE                               24


       LIGNY                                           63

       QUATRE-BRAS                                     84

       WATERLOO AND WAVRE                             129

    V. THE ACTION                                     158




It must continually be insisted upon in military history, that general
actions, however decisive, are but the functions of campaigns; and that
campaigns, in their turn, are but the functions of the political energies
of the governments whose armies are engaged.

The object of a campaign is invariably a political object, and all its
military effort is, or should be, subsidiary to that political object.

One human community desires to impose upon the future a political
condition which another human community rejects; or each is attempting to
impose upon the future, conditions irreconcilable one with the other.
Until we know what those conditions are, or what is the political
objective of each opponent, we cannot decide upon the success of a
campaign, nor give it its true position in history.

Thus, to take the simplest and crudest case, a nation or its government
determines to annex the territory of a neighbour; that is, to subject a
neighbouring community to the laws of the conqueror. That neighbouring
community and its government, if they are so old-fashioned as to prefer
freedom, will resist by force of arms, and there will follow what is
called a "campaign" (a term derived from the French, and signifying a
countryside: for countrysides are the theatres of wars). In this campaign
the political object of the attempted conquest on the one hand, and of
resistance to it on the other, are the issue. The military aspect of the
campaign is subsidiary to its political objects, and we judge of its
success or failure not in military but in political terms.

The prime military object of a general is to "annihilate" the armed force
of his opponents. He may do this by breaking up their organisation and
dispersing them, or by compelling the surrender of their arms. He may
achieve success in this purely military object in any degree. But if, as
an end and consequence of his military success, the political object be
not achieved--if, for instance, in the particular case we are considering,
the neighbouring community does not in the future obey laws dictated to it
by the conqueror, but remains autonomous--then the campaign has failed.

Such considerations are, I repeat, the very foundation of military
history; and throughout this Series they will be insisted upon as the
light in which alone military history can be understood.

It is further true that not only may a campaign be successful in the
military sense, and yet in the largest historical sense be a failure, but,
quite evidently, the actions in a campaign may each be successful and yet
the campaign a failure; or each action may, on the whole, fail, and yet
that campaign be a success. As the old formulæ go, "You can win every
battle and lose your campaign." And, again, "A great general does not aim
at winning battles, but at winning his campaign." An action results from
the contact of the opposing forces, and from the necessity in which they
find themselves, after such contact, of attempting the one to disorganise
or to capture the other. And in the greater part actions are only
"accepted," as the phrase goes, by either party, because each party
regards the action as presenting opportunities for his own success.

A campaign can perfectly well be conceived in which an opponent,
consciously inferior in the field, will avoid action throughout, and by
such a plan can actually win the campaign in the end. Historical instances
of this, though rare, exist. And there have even been campaigns where,
after a great action disastrous to one side, that side has yet been able
to keep up a broken resistance sufficiently lengthy and exhausting to
baulk the conqueror of his political object in the end.

In a word, it is the business of the serious student in military history
to reverse the popular and dramatic conception of war, to neglect the
brilliance and local interest of a battle for the larger view of the whole
operations; and, again, to remember that these operations are not an end
in themselves, but are only designed to serve the political plan of the
government which has commanded them.

       *       *       *       *       *

Judged in this true light, we may establish the following conclusions
with regard to the battle of Waterloo.

First, the battle of Waterloo was a decisive action, the result of which
was a complete military success for the Allies in the campaign they had
undertaken, and a complete military defeat for Napoleon, who had opposed

This complete military success of the Allies' campaign was, again,
equivalent to a success in their immediate political object, which was the
overthrow of Napoleon's personal power, the re-establishment of the
Bourbons upon the French throne, and the restoration of those traditions
and ideals of government which had been common to Europe before the
outbreak of the French Revolution twenty-four years before.

Had the effect of this battle and that campaign been permanent, one could
speak of their success as complete; but when we discuss that largest issue
of all, to wit, whether the short campaign which Waterloo so decisively
concluded really effected its object, considering that that object was the
permanent destruction of the revolutionary effort and the permanent
re-establishment of the old state of affairs in Europe, we are compelled
to arrive at a very different conclusion: a conclusion which will vary
with the varying judgment of men, and one which cannot be final, because
the drama is not yet played out; but a conclusion which, in the eyes of
all, singularly modifies the effect of the campaign of Waterloo.

It is obvious, at the first glance we take of European history during,
say, the lifetime of a man who should have been a boy in Waterloo year,
that the general political object of the revolutionary and Napoleonic
armies was not reversed at Waterloo. It was ultimately established. The
war had been successfully maintained during too long a period for the
uprooting of the political conditions which the French had attempted to
impose upon Europe. Again, those conditions were sufficiently sympathetic
to the European mind at the time to develop generously, and to grow in
spite of all attempted restriction. And we discover, as a fact, democratic
institutions, democratic machinery at least, spreading rapidly again after
their defeat at Waterloo, and partially victorious, first in France and
later elsewhere, within a very few years of that action.

The same is true of certain secondary results of the prolonged
revolutionary and Napoleonic campaigns. Nationality predominated over the
old idea of a monarch governing his various "peoples," and the whole
history of the nineteenth century was a gradual vindication of the
principle of nationality. A similar fate awaited institutions bound up
with the French revolutionary effort: a wide and continually expressed
suffrage, the arming of whole nations in defence of their independence,
the ordering of political life upon the new plan, down even to the details
of the revolutionary weights and measures (the metre, the gramme,
etc.)--these succeeded and in effect triumphed over the arrangements which
that older society had fought to restore.

On the other hand, the advance of all this was much slower, much more
disturbed, much less complete, than it would have been had Napoleon not
failed in Russia, suffered his decisive defeat at Leipzig, and fallen for
ever upon that famous field of Waterloo; and one particular
characteristic, namely, the imposition of all these things upon Europe by
the will of a government at Paris, wholly disappeared.

We may sum up, then, and say that the political effect of the battle of
Waterloo and its campaign was an immediate success for the Allies: that
their ultimate success the history of the nineteenth century has reversed;
but that the victory of Waterloo modified, retarded, and perhaps distorted
in a permanent fashion the establishment of those conceptions of society
and government which the Revolution, and Napoleon as its soldier, had set
out to establish.

       *       *       *       *       *

There is a side question attached to all this, with which I shall
conclude, because it forms the best introduction to what is to follow:
that question is,--"Would Napoleon have ultimately succeeded even if he
had triumphed instead of fallen upon the 18th of June 1815?" In other
words, was Waterloo one of these battles the winning or losing of which by
_either_ side, meant a corresponding decisive result to that side? Had
Wellington's command broken at Waterloo before the arrival of Blucher,
would Napoleon's consequent victory have meant as much to _him_ as his
defeat actually meant to the allies?

The answer of history to this question is, No. Even had Napoleon won on
that day he would have lost in the long run.

The date to which we must affix the reverse of Napoleon's effort is not
the 18th of June 1815, but the 19th of October 1812, when the Grand Army
began its retreat from Moscow; and the political decision, his failure in
which was the origin of his fall, was not the decision taken in June 1815
to advance against the Allies in Belgium, but the decision taken in May
1812 to advance into the vast spaces of Russia. The decisive action which
the largest view of history will record in centuries to come as the defeat
which ruined Napoleon took place, not south of Brussels, but near the town
of Leipzig, two years before. From the last moment of that three days'
battle (again the 19th of October, precisely a twelvemonth after the
retreat from Moscow had begun), Napoleon and the French armies are
continually falling back. Upon the 4th of April in the following year
Napoleon abdicated; and exactly a month later, on the 4th of May, he was
imprisoned, under the show of local sovereignty, in the island of Elba.

It was upon the 1st of March 1815 that, having escaped from that island,
he landed upon the southern coast of France. There followed the doomed
attempt to save somewhat of the Revolution and the Napoleonic scheme,
which is known to history as the "hundred days." Even that attempt would
have been impossible had not the greater part of the commanders of units
in the French army, that is, of the colonels of regiments, abandoned the
Bourbon government, which had been restored at Paris, and decided to
support Napoleon.

But even so, the experiment was hazardous in the extreme. Had the
surrounding governments which had witnessed and triumphed over his fall
permitted him, as he desired, to govern France in peace, and France alone,
this small part of the revolutionary plan might have been saved from the
general wreck of its fortunes and of his. But such an hypothesis is
fantastic. There could be and there was no chance that these great
governments, now fully armed, and with all their organised hosts prepared
and filled with the memory of recent victory, would permit the restoration
of democratic government in that France which had been the centre and
outset of the vast movement they had determined to destroy. Further,
though Napoleon had behind him the majority, he had not the united mass of
the French people. An ordered peace following upon victory would have
given him such a support; after his recent crushing defeat it was lacking.
It was especially true that the great chiefs of the army were doubtful.
His own generals rejoined him, some with enthusiasm, more with doubt,
while a few betrayed him early in the process of his attempted

It is impossible to believe that under such circumstances Napoleon could
have successfully met Europe in arms. The military resources of the French
people, though not exhausted, were reaching their term. New levies of men
yielded a material far inferior to the conscripts of earlier years; and
when the Emperor estimated 800,000 men as the force which he required for
his effort, it was but the calculation of despair. Eight hundred thousand
men: even had they been the harvest of a long peace, the whole armed
nation, vigorous in health and fresh for a prolonged contest, would not
have been sufficient. The combined Powers had actually under arms a number
as great as that, and inexhaustible reserves upon which to draw. A quarter
of a million stood ready in the Netherlands, another quarter of a million
could march from Austria to cross the Rhine. North Italy had actually
present against him 70,000 men; and Russia, which had a similarly active
and ready force of 170,000, could increase that host almost indefinitely
from her enormous body of population.

But, so far from 800,000 men, Napoleon found to his command not one
quarter of that number armed and ready for war. Though Napoleon fell back
upon that desperate resource of a starved army, the inclusion of militia;
though he swept into his net the whole youth of that year, and accepted
conscripts almost without regard to physical capacity; though he went so
far as to put the sailors upon shore to help him in his effort, and
counted in his effectives the police, the customs officials, and, as one
may say, every uniformed man, he was compelled, even after two and a half
months of effort, to consider his ready force as less than 300,000, indeed
only just over 290,000.

There was behind this, it is true, a reserve of irregulars such as I have
described, but the spirit furnishing those irregulars was uncertain, and
the yield of them patchy and heterogeneous. Perhaps a quarter of the
country responded readily to the appeal which was to call up a national
militia. But even upon the eve of the Waterloo campaign there were
departments, such as the Orne, which had not compelled five per cent. of
those called to join the colours, such as the Pas de Calais and the Gers,
which had not furnished eight per cent., and at the very last moment, of
every twenty-five men called, not fifteen had come.

Add to this that Napoleon must strike at once or not at all, and it will
readily be seen how desperate his situation was. His great chiefs of the
higher command were not united in his service, the issue was doubtful, and
to join Napoleon was to be a rebel should he fail,--was to be a rebel,
that is, in case of a very probable event. The marvel is that so many of
the leading men who had anything to lose undertook the chances at all.
Finally, even of the total force available to him at that early moment
when he was compelled to strike, Napoleon could strike with but a
fraction. Less than half of the men available could he gather to deliver
this decisive blow; and that blow, be it remembered, he could deliver at
but one of the various hosts which were preparing to advance against him.

He was thus handicapped by two things: first, the necessity under which he
believed himself to be of leaving considerable numbers to watch the
frontiers. Secondly, and most important, the limitations imposed upon him
by his lack of provision. With every effort, he could not fully arm and
equip and munition a larger force than that which he gathered in early
June for his last desperate throw; and the body upon the immediate and
decisive success of which everything depended numbered but 124,000 men.

With this force Napoleon proceeded to attack the Allies in the
Netherlands. _There_ was a belt of French-speaking population. _There_ was
that body of the Allies which lay nearest to his hand, and over which, if
he were but victorious, his victory would have its fullest effect. _There_
were the troops under Wellington, a defeat of which would mean the cutting
off of England, the financier of the Allies, from the Continent. _There_
was present a population many elements of which sympathised with him and
with the French revolutionary effort. Finally, the allied force in Belgium
was the least homogeneous of the forces with which he would have to deal
in the long succession of struggle from which even a success at this
moment would not spare him.

From all these causes combined, and for the further reason that Paris was
most immediately threatened from this neighbouring Belgian frontier, it
was upon that frontier that Napoleon determined to cast his spear. It was
upon the 5th of June that the first order was sent out for the
concentration of this army for the invasion of Belgium.

In ten days the 124,000 men, with their 370 guns, were massed upon the
line between Maubeuge and Philippeville, immediately upon the frontier,
and ready to cross it. The way in which the frontier was passed and the
river Sambre crossed before the first actions took place form between them
the preliminaries of the campaign, and must be the subject of my next



To understand the battle of Waterloo it is necessary, more perhaps than in
the case of any other great decisive action, to read it strategically:
that is, to regard the final struggle of Sunday the 18th of June as only
the climax of certain general movements, the first phase of which was the
concentration of the French Army of the North, and the second the passage
of the Sambre river and the attack. This second phase covered four days in
time, and in space an advance of nearly forty miles.

There is a sense, of course, in which it is true of every battle that its
result is closely connected with the strategy which led up to its tactical
features: how the opposing forces arrived upon the field, in what
condition, and in what disposition and at what time, with what advantage
or disadvantage, is always necessarily connected with the history of the
campaign rather than of the individual action; but, as we saw in the case
of Blenheim, and as might be exemplified from a hundred other cases, the
greater part of battles can be understood by following the tactical
dispositions upon the field. They are won or lost, in the main, according
to those dispositions.

With Waterloo it was not so. Waterloo was lost by Napoleon, won by the
Allies, _not_ mainly on account of tactical movements upon the field
itself, but mainly on account of what had happened in the course of the
advance of the French army to that field. In other words, the military
character of that great decisive action is always missed by those who have
read it isolated from the movements immediately preceding it.

Napoleon, determining to strike at Belgium under the political
circumstances we have already seen, was attacking forces about double his

He was like one man coming up rapidly and almost unexpectedly to attack
two: but hoping if possible to deal successively and singly with either

His doubtful chance of success in such a hazard obviously lay in his being
able to attack each enemy separately: that is, to engage first one before
the second came to his aid; then the second; and thus to defeat each in
turn. The chance of victory under such circumstances is slight. It
presupposes the surprise of the two allied adversaries by their single
opponent, and the defeat of one so quickly that the other cannot come to
his aid till all is over. But no other avenue of victory is open to a man
fighting enemies of double his numerical strength; at least under
conditions where armament, material, and racial type are much the same
upon either side.

The possibility of dealing thus with his enemy Napoleon thought possible,
and thought it possible from two factors in the situation before him.

The first factor was that the allied army, seeing its great numbers, the
comparatively small accumulation of supplies which it could yet command,
the great length of frontier which it had to watch, was spread out in a
great number of cantonments, the whole stretch of which was no less than
one hundred miles in length, from Liège upon the east or left to Tournay
upon the west or right.

The second factor which gave Napoleon his chance was that this long line
depended for its supply, its orders, its line of retreat upon two separate
and opposite bases.

The left or eastern half, formed mainly of Prussian subjects, and acting
under BLUCHER, had arrived from the east, looked for safety in case of
defeat to a retreat towards the Rhine, obtained its supplies from that
direction, and in general was fed from the _east_ along those
communications, continual activity along which are as necessary to the
life of an army as the uninterrupted working of the air-tube is necessary
to the life of a diver.

The western or right-hand part of the line, Dutch, German, Belgian, and
British, acting under WELLINGTON, depended, upon the contrary, upon the
North Sea, and upon communication across that sea with England. That is,
it drew its supplies and the necessaries of its existence from the _west_,
the opposite and contrary direction from that to which the Prussian half
of the Allies were looking for theirs. The effect of this upon the
campaign is at once simple to perceive and of capital importance in
Napoleon's plan.

Wellington and Blucher did not, under the circumstances, oppose to
Napoleon a single body drawing its life from one stream of communications.
They did not in combination command a force defending one goal; they
commanded two forces defending two goals. The thorough defeat of one
would throw it back away from the other if the attack were delivered at
the point where the two just joined hands; and the English[1] or western
half under Wellington was bound to movements actually contrary to the
Prussian or eastern half under Blucher in case either were defeated before
the other could come to its aid.

Napoleon, then, in his rapid advance upon Belgium, was a man conducting a
column against a line. He was conducting that column against one special
point, the point of junction between two disparate halves of an opposing
line. He advanced therefore upon a narrow front perpendicular to, and
aimed at the centre of, the long scattered cordon of his double enemy,
which cordon it was his business if possible to divide just where the
western end of one half touched the eastern end of the other. He designed
to fight in detail the first portion he could engage, then to turn upon
the other, and thus to defeat both singly and in turn.

I will put this strategical position before the reader in the shape of an
English parallel in order to make it the plainer, and I will then, by the
aid of sketch maps, show how the Allies actually lay upon the Belgian
frontier at the moment when Napoleon delivered his attack upon it.

Imagine near a quarter million of men spread out in a line of separate
cantonments from Windsor at one extremity to Bristol at the other; and
suppose that the eastern half of this line from Windsor to as far west as
Wallingford is depending for its supplies and its communications upon the
river Thames and its road system, and is prepared in case of defeat to
fall back, down the valley of that stream towards London.

On the other hand, imagine that the western half from Swindon to Bristol
is receiving its supplies from the Severn and the Bristol Channel, and
must in case of defeat fall back westward upon that line.

Now, suppose an invading column rather more than 120,000 strong to be
advancing from the south against this line, but prepared to strike up from
almost any point on the Channel. It strikes, as a fact, from Southampton,
and marches rapidly north by Winchester and Newbury. By the time it has
reached Newbury, the eastern half of the opposing line, that between
Wallingford and Windsor, has concentrated to meet it, but is defeated in
the neighbourhood of that town.

Such a battle at Newbury would correspond to the battle at Ligny (let it
be fought upon a Friday). Meanwhile, the western half, hurrying up in aid,
has failed to effect a junction before the eastern half was defeated,
comes up too late above Newbury, and finding it is too late, retires upon
Abingdon. The victorious invader pursues them, and at noon on the second
day engages them in a long line which they hold in front of Abingdon.

If he has only to deal in front of Abingdon with this second or western
half, which hurried up too late to help the defeated eastern half, he has
very fair chances of success. He is slightly superior numerically; he has,
upon the whole, better troops and he has more guns. But the eastern half
of the defending army, which has been beaten at Newbury, though beaten,
was neither destroyed nor dispersed, nor thrust very far back from the
line of operations. It has retreated to Wallingford, that is towards the
north, parallel to the retreat of the western half; and a few hours after
this western half is engaged in battle with the invader in front of
Abingdon, the eastern half appears upon that invader's right flank, joins
forces with the line of the defenders at Abingdon, and thus brings not
only a crushing superiority of numbers upon the field against the invader,
but also brings it up in such a manner that he is compelled to fight upon
two fronts at once. He is, of course, destroyed by such a combination, and
his army routed and dispersed. An action of this sort fought at Abingdon
would correspond to the action which was fought upon the field of
Waterloo, supposing, of course, for the purpose of this rough parallel, an
open countryside without the obstacle of the river.

The actual positions of the two combined commands, the command of Blucher
and the command of Wellington, which between them held the long line
between Tournay and Liège, will be grasped from the sketch map upon the
next page.

The reader who would grasp the campaign in the short compass of such an
essay as this had best consider the numbers and the positions in a form
not too detailed, and busy himself with a picture which, though accurate,
shall be general.

Let him, then, consider the whole line between Liège and Tournay to
consist of the two halves already presented: a western half, which we
will call the Duke of Wellington's, and an eastern half, which we will
call Blucher's: of these two the Duke of Wellington was


Next, note the numbers of each and their disposition. The mixed force
under the Duke of Wellington was somewhat over 100,000 men, with just over
200 guns.[2] They consisted in two corps and a reserve. The first corps
was under the Prince of Orange, and was mainly composed of men from the
Netherlands. Its headquarters were at Braine le Comte. The second corps
was under Lord Hill, and contained the mass of the British troops present.
Its headquarters were at Ath. These two between them amounted to about
half of Wellington's command, and we find them scattered in cantonments at
Oudenarde, at Ath, at Enghien, at Soignies, at Nivelles, at Roeulx, at
Braine le Comte, at Hal. A reserve corps under the Duke's own command was
stationed at Brussels, and amounted to more than one-fifth, but less than
one-quarter, of the whole force. The remaining quarter and a little more
is accounted for by scattered cavalry (mainly in posts upon the river
Dender), by the learned arms, gunners and sappers, distributed throughout
the army, and by troops which were occupying garrisons--in numbers
amounting to rather more than ten per cent. of the force.

The eastern Prussian or left half of the line was, as is apparent in the
preceding map, somewhat larger. It had a quarter more men and half as many
guns again as that under the Duke of Wellington, and it was organised into
four army corps, whose headquarters were respectively Charleroi, Namur,
Ciney, and Liège.

The whole line, therefore, which was waiting the advance of Napoleon, was
not quite two and a third hundred thousand men, with rather more than 500
guns. Of this grand total of the two halves, Wellington's and Blucher's
combined, about eighteen per cent. came from the British Islands, and of
that eighteen per cent., again, a very large proportion--exactly how large
it is impossible to determine--were Irish.

Now let us turn to the army which Napoleon was leading against this line
of Wellington and Blucher. It was just under one hundred and a quarter
thousand men strong, that is, just over half the total number of its
opponents. It had, however, a heavier proportion of guns, which were
two-thirds as numerous as those it had to meet.

This "Army of the North" was organised in seven great bodies, unequal in
size, but each a unit averaging seventeen odd thousand men. These seven
great bodies were the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th Army Corps, the 6th Army Corps,
the Imperial Guard, and the reserve cavalry under Grouchy.

The concentration of this army began, as I said in a previous section,
upon the 5th of June, and was effected with a rapidity and order which are
rightly regarded as a model by all writers upon military science.

The French troops, when the order for concentration was given, stretched
westward as far as Lille, eastward as far as Metz, southward as far as
Paris, in the neighbourhood of which town was the Imperial Guard. The
actual marching of the various units occupied a week. Napoleon was at the
front on the night of the 13th of June; the whole army was upon the 14th
drawn up upon a line stretched from Maubeuge to Philippeville, and the
attack was ready to begin.

The concentration had been effected with singular secrecy, as well as
with the promptitude and accuracy we have noted; and though the common
opinion of Wellington and Blucher, that Napoleon had no intention of
attacking, reposed upon sound general judgment--for the hazard Napoleon
was playing in this game of one against two was extreme,--nevertheless it
is remarkable that both of these great commanders should have been so
singularly ignorant of the impending blow. Napoleon himself was actually
over the frontier at the moment when Wellington was writing at his ease
that he intended to take the offensive at the end of the month, and
Blucher, a few days earlier, had expressed the opinion that he might be
kept inactive for a whole year, since Bonaparte had no intention of

By the evening of Wednesday, June the 14th, all was ready for the advance,
which was ordered for the next morning.

It would but confuse the general reader to attempt to carry with him
through this short account the name and character of each commander, but
it is essential to remember one at least--the name of _Erlon_; and he
should also remember that the corps which Erlon commanded was the _First_
Corps; for, as we shall see, upon Erlon's wanderings with this First
Corps depended the unsatisfactory termination of Ligny, and the subsequent
intervention of the Prussians at Waterloo, which decided that action.

It is also of little moment for the purpose of this to retain the names of
the places which were the headquarters of each of these corps before the
advance began. It is alone important to the reader that he should have a
clear picture of the order in which this advance took place, for thus only
will he understand both where it struck, and why, with all its rapidity,
it suffered from certain shocks or jerks.

Napoleon's advance was upon three parallel lines and in three main bodies.

The left or westernmost consisted of the First and Second Corps d'Armée;
the centre, of the Imperial Guard, together with the Third and Sixth
Corps. The third or right consisted of the Fourth Corps alone, with a
division of cavalry. These three bodies, when the night of Wednesday the
14th of June fell, lay, the first at Sorle and Leer; the second at
Beaumont, and upon the road that runs through it to Charleroi; the third
at Philippeville.

It is at this stage advisable to consider why Napoleon had chosen the
crossing of the Sambre at Charleroi and the sites immediately to the north
on the left bank of that river as the point where he would strike at the
long line of the Allies.

Many considerations converged to impose this line of advance upon
Napoleon. In the first place, it was his task to cut the line of the
Allies in two at the point where the extremity of one army, the Prussian,
touched upon the extremity of the other, that of the Duke of Wellington.
This point lay due north of the river-crossing he had chosen.

Again, the main road to Brussels was barred by the fortress of Mons,
which, though not formidable, had been put in some sort of state of

Again, as a glance at the accompanying map will show, the Prussian half of
the allied line was drawn somewhat in front of the other half; and if
Napoleon were to attack the enemy in detail, he must strike at the
Prussians first. Finally, the line Maubeuge-Philippeville, upon which he
concentrated his front, was, upon the whole, the most central position in
the long line of his frontier troops, which stretched from Metz to the
neighbourhood of the Straits of Dover. Being the most central point, not
only with regard to these two extremities, but also with regard to
distant Paris, it was the point upon which his concentration could most
rapidly be effected.


This, then, was the position upon the night of the 14th. The three great
bodies of French troops (much the largest of which was that in the centre)
to march at dawn, the light cavalry moving as early as half past two,
ahead of the centre, the whole body of which was to march on Charleroi.

The left, that is the First and Second Corps, to cross the Sambre at
Thuin, the Abbaye d'Aulne, and Marchiennes. (There were bridges at all
three places.) The right or Fourth Corps was also to march on

Napoleon intended to be over the river with all his men by the afternoon
of the 15th, but, as we shall see, this "bunching" of fully half the
advance upon one crossing place caused, not a fatal, but a prejudicial
delay. Among other elements in this false calculation was an apparent
error on the part of Soult, who blundered in some way which kept the
Third Corps with the centre instead of relieving the pressure by sending
it over with the Fourth to cross, under the revised instructions, by

[Illustration: Disposition of the Four Prussian Corps on June 15th, 1815.]

At dawn, then, the whole front of the French army was moving. It was the
dawn of Thursday the 15th of June. By sunset of Sunday all was to be

       *       *       *       *       *

At this point it is essential to grasp the general scheme of the
operations which are about to follow.

Put in its simplest elements and graphically, the whole business began in
some such form as is presented in the accompanying sketch map.


Napoleon's advancing army X Y Z, marching on Thursday, June 15th, strikes
at O (which is Charleroi), the centre of the hundred-mile-long line of
cantonments A B C----D E F, which form the two armies of the Allies, twice
as numerous as his own, but thus dispersed. Just behind Charleroi (O) are
a hamlet and a village, called respectively Quatre Bras (Q) and Ligny (P).

Napoleon succeeds in bringing the eastern or Prussian half of this long
line D E F to battle and defeating it at Ligny (P) upon the next day,
Friday, June 16th, before the western half, or Wellington's A B C, can
come up in aid; and on the same day a portion of his forces, X, under his
lieutenant, Marshal Ney, holds up that western half, just as it is
attempting to effect its junction with the eastern half at Quatre Bras
(Q), a few miles off from Ligny (P). The situation on the night of Friday,
June 16th, at the end of this second step, is that represented in this
second sketch map.


Believing the Prussians (D E F) to be retreating from Ligny towards their
base eastward, and not northwards, Napoleon more or less neglects them and
concentrates his main body in order to follow up Wellington's western half
(A B C), and in the hope of defeating _that_ in its turn, as he has
already defeated the eastern or Prussian half (D E F) at Ligny (P). With
this object Napoleon advances northward during all the third day,
Saturday, June 17th. Wellington (A B C) retreats north before him during
that same day, and then, on the morrow, the 18th, Sunday, turns to give
battle at Waterloo (W). Napoleon engages him with fair chances of success,
and the situation as the battle begins at midday on the 18th is that
sketched in this third map.


But unexpectedly, and against what Napoleon had imagined possible, the
Prussians (D E F), when defeated at Ligny (P), did not retreat upon their
base, and have not so suffered from their defeat as to be incapable of
further action. They have marched northward parallel to the retreat of
Wellington; and while Napoleon (X Y Z) is at the hottest of his struggle
with Wellington (A B C) at Waterloo (W), this eastern or Prussian half (D
E F) comes down upon his flank at (R) in the middle of the afternoon, and
by the combined numbers and disposition of this double attack Napoleon's
army is crushed before darkness sets in.


Such, in its briefest graphic elements, is the story of the four days.

It will be observed from what we have said that the whole thing turns upon
the incompleteness of Napoleon's success at Ligny, and the power of
_retreating northward_ left to the Prussians after that defeat.

When we come to study the details of the story, we shall see that this,
the Prussian defeat at Ligny, was thus incomplete because one of
Napoleon's subordinates, Erlon, with the First French Army Corps, received
contradictory orders and did not come up as he should have done to turn
the battle of Ligny into a decisive victory for Napoleon. A part of
Napoleon's forces being thus neutralised and held useless during the fight
at Ligny, the Prussian army escaped, still formed as a fighting force, and
still capable of reappearing, as it did reappear, at the critical moment,
two days later, upon the field of Waterloo.


The rapidity of Napoleon's stroke was marred at its very outset by certain
misfortunes as well as certain miscalculations. His left, which was
composed of the First and Second Corps d'Armée, did indeed reach the river
Sambre in the morning, and had carried the bridge of Marchiennes by noon,
but the First Corps, under Erlon, were not across--that is, the whole left
had not negotiated the river--until nearly five o'clock in the afternoon.

Next, the general in command of the leading division of the right-hand
body--the Fourth Corps--gave the first example of that of which the whole
Napoleonic organisation was then in such terror, I mean the mistrust in
the fortunes of the Emperor, and the tendency to revert to the old social
conditions, which for a moment the Bourbons had brought back, and which so
soon they might bring back again--he deserted. The order was thereupon
given for the Fourth Corps or right wing to cross at Châtelet, but it came
late (as late as half-past three in the afternoon), and did but cause
delay. At this eastern end of Napoleon's front the last men were not over
the river until the next day.

As to the centre (the main body of the army), its cavalry reached
Charleroi before ten o'clock in the morning, but an unfortunate and
exasperating accident befallen a messenger left the infantry immediately
behind without instructions. The cavalry were impotent to force the bridge
crossing the river Sambre, which runs through the town, until the main
body should appear, and it was not until past noon that the main body
began crossing the Sambre by the Charleroi bridge. The Emperor had
probably intended to fight immediately after having crossed the river.
Gosselies, to the north, was strongly held; and had all his men been over
the Sambre in the early afternoon as he had intended, an action fought
suddenly, by surprise as it were, against the advance bodies of the First
Prussian Corps, would have given the first example of that destruction of
the enemy in detail which Napoleon intended. But the delays in the
advance, rapid as it had been, now forbade any such good fortune. The end
of the daylight was spent in pushing back the head of the First Prussian
Corps (with a loss of somewhat over 1000 men), and when night fell upon
that Thursday evening, the 15th of June, the French held Charleroi and all
the crossings of the Sambre, but were not yet in a position to attack in
force. Of the left, the First Corps were but just over the Sambre; on the
right, that is, of the Fourth Corps, some units were still upon the other
side of the river; while, of the centre, the _whole_ of the Sixth Corps,
and a certain proportion of cavalry as well, had still to cross!

Napoleon had failed to bring the enemy to action; that enemy had fallen
back upon Fleurus, pretty nearly intact.[4] All the real work had
evidently to be put off, not only until the morrow, but until a fairly
late hour upon the morrow, for it would take some time to get all the
French forces on to the Belgian side of the river.

When this should have been accomplished, however, the task of the next
day, the Friday, was clear.

It was Napoleon's business to fall upon whatever Prussian force might be
concentrated before him and upon his right and to destroy it, meanwhile
holding back, by a force sent up the Brussels road to Quatre Bras, any
attempt Wellington and his western army might make to join the Prussians
and save them.

That night the Duke of Wellington's army lay in its cantonments without
concentration and without alarm, guessing nothing. The head of
Wellington's First Corps, the young Prince of Orange, who commanded the
Netherlanders, had left his headquarters to go and dine with the Duke in

Wellington, we may believe if we choose (the point is by no means
certain), knew as early as three o'clock in the afternoon that the French
had moved. It may have been as late as five, it may even have been six.
But whatever the hour in which he received his information, it is quite
certain that he had no conception of the gravity of the moment. As late as
ten o'clock at night the Duke issued certain after-orders. He had
previously given general orders (which presupposed no immediate attack),
commanding movements which would in the long-run have produced a
concentration, but though these orders were ordered to be executed "with
as little delay as possible," there was no hint of immediate duty
required, nor do the posts indicated betray in any way the urgent need
there was to push men south and east at the top of their speed, and
relieve the Prussians from the shock they were to receive on the morrow.

These general orders given--orders that betray no grasp of the nearness of
the issue--Wellington went off to the Duchess of Richmond's ball in what
the impartial historian cannot doubt to be ignorance of the great stroke
which Napoleon had so nearly brought off upon that very day, and would
certainly attempt to bring off upon the next.

In the midst of the ball, or rather during the supper, definite news came
in that the French army had crossed the river Sambre, and had even pushed
its cavalry as far up the Brussels road as Quatre Bras.

The Duke does not seem to have appreciated even then what that should mean
in the way of danger to the Prussians, and indeed of the breaking of the
whole line. He left the dance at about two in the morning and went to

He was not long left in repose. In the bright morning sunlight, four hours
afterwards, he was roused by a visitor from the frontier, and we have it
upon his evidence that the Duke at last understood what was before him,
and said that the concentration of his forces must be at Quatre Bras.

In other words, Wellington knew or appreciated extremely tardily on that
_Friday_ morning about six that the blow was about to fall upon his
Prussian allies to the south and east, and that it was the business of his
army upon the west to come up rapidly in succour.

As will be seen in a moment, he failed; but it would be a very puerile
judgment of this great man and superb defensive General to belittle his
place in the history of war upon the basis of even such errors as these.

True, the error and the delay were prodigious and, in a fashion, comic;
and had Napoleon delivered upon the _Thursday_ afternoon, as he had
intended, an attack which should have defeated the Prussians before him,
Wellington's error and delay would have paid a very heavy price.

As it was, Napoleon's own delay in crossing the Sambre made Wellington's
mistake and tardiness bear no disastrous fruit. The Duke failed to succour
the Prussians. His troops, scattered all over Western Belgium, did not
come up in time to prevent the defeat of his allies at Ligny. But he held
his own at Quatre Bras; and in the final battle, forty-eight hours later,
the genius with which he handled his raw troops upon the ridge of Mont St
Jean wiped out and negatived all his strategical misconceptions of the
previous days.

From this confusion, this partial delay and error upon Napoleon's part,
this ignorance upon Wellington's of what was toward, both of which marked
Thursday the 15th, we must turn to a detailed description of that morrow,
Friday the 16th, which, though it is less remembered in history than the
crowning day of Waterloo, was, in every military sense, the decisive day
of the campaign.

We shall see that it was Napoleon's failure upon that Friday completely to
defeat, or rather to destroy, the Prussian force at Ligny--a failure
largely due to Wellington's neighbouring resistance at Quatre Bras--which
determined the Emperor's final defeat upon the Sunday at Waterloo.





We have seen what the 15th of June was in those four short days of which
Waterloo was to be the climax. That Thursday was filled with an advance,
rapid and unexpected, against the centre of the allied line, and therefore
against that weak point where the two halves of the allied line joined, to
wit, Charleroi and the country immediately to the north of that town and

We have further seen that while the unexpectedness of the blow was almost
as thorough as Napoleon could have wished, the rapidity of its delivery,
though considerable, had been less than he had anticipated. He had got by
the evening of the day not much more than three-quarters of his forces
across the river Sambre, and this passage, which was mapped out for
completion before nightfall, straggled on through the whole morning of the
morrow,--a tardiness the effects of which we shall clearly see in the next
few pages.

Napoleon's intention, once the Sambre was crossed, was to divide his army
into two bodies: one, on the left, was to be entrusted to Ney; one, on the
right, to Grouchy. A reserve, which the Emperor would command in person,
was to consist in the main of the Imperial Guard.

The left-hand body, under Ney, was to go straight north up the great
Brussels road.

Napoleon rightly estimated that he had surprised the foe, though he
exaggerated the extent of that surprise. He thought it possible that this
body to the left, under Ney, might push on to Brussels itself, and in any
case could easily deal with the small and unprepared forces which it might
meet upon the way. Its function in any case, whether resistance proved
slight or formidable, was to hold the forces of Wellington back from
effecting a junction with Blucher and the Prussians.

Meanwhile, the right-hand body, under Grouchy, was to fall upon the
extremity of the Prussian line and overwhelm it.


Such an action against the head of the long Prussian cordon could lead, as
the Emperor thought, to but one of two results: either the great majority
of the Prussian force, coming up to retrieve this first disaster, would be
defeated in detail as it came; or, more probably, finding itself cut off
from all aid on the part of Wellington's forces to the west and its head
crushed, the long Prussian line would roll up backwards upon its
communications towards the east, whence it had come.

In either case the prime object of Napoleon's sudden move would have been
achieved; and, with the body upon the left, under Ney, pushing up the
Brussels road, the body upon the right, under Grouchy, pushing back the
head of the Prussian line eastward, the two halves of the Allies would be
separated altogether, and could later be dealt with, each in turn. The
capital disadvantage under which Napoleon suffered--the fact that he had
little more than half as many men as his combined enemies--would be
neutralised, because he would, after the separation of those enemies into
two bodies, be free to deal with either at his choice. Their
communications came from diametrically opposite directions,[5] and, as the
plan of each depended upon the co-operation of the other, their separation
would leave them confused and without a scheme.

Napoleon in all this exaggerated the facility of the task before him; but
before we go into that, it is essential that the reader should grasp a
certain character in all military affairs, to misunderstand which is to
misread the history of armies.

_This characteristic is the necessary uncertainty under which every
commander lies as to the disposition, the number, the order, and the
information of his opponents._

It is a _necessary_ characteristic in all warfare, because it is a prime
duty in the conduct of war to conceal from your enemy your numbers, your
dispositions, and the extent of your information. It is a duty which every
commander will always fulfil to his best ability.

It is therefore a characteristic, be it noted, which no development of
human science can conceivably destroy, for with every advance in our means
of communicating information we advance also in our knowledge of the means
whereby the new means of communication may be interrupted. An advantage
over the enemy in the means one has of acquiring knowledge with regard to
him must, of course, always be of supreme importance, and when those means
are novel, one side or the other is often beforehand for some years with
the new science of their use. When such is the case, science appears to
uninstructed opinion to have changed this ancient and fixed characteristic
which is in the very nature of war. But in fact there has been no such
change. Under the most primitive conditions an advantage of this type was
of supreme importance; under conditions the most scientific and refined it
is an advantage that may still be neutralised if the enemy has learnt
means of screening himself as excellent as our means of discovering him.
Even the aeroplane, whose development in the modern French service has so
vastly changed the character of information, and therefore of war, can
never eliminate the factor of which I speak. A service possessed of a
great superiority in this new arm will, of course, be the master of its
foe; but when the use of the new arm is spread and equalised among all
European forces so that two opposing forces are equally matched even in
this new discovery, then the old element of move and countermove, feint,
secrecy, and calculated confusion of an adversary, will reappear.[6]

In general, then, to point out the ignorance and the misconceptions of one
commander is no criticism of a campaign until we have appreciated the
corresponding ignorance and misconceptions of the other. We have already
seen Wellington taken almost wholly by surprise on the French advance; we
shall see him, even when he appreciated its existence, imagining it to be
directed principally against himself. We shall similarly see Napoleon
underestimating the Prussian force in front of him, and underestimating
even that tardy information which had reached Wellington in time for him
to send troops up the Brussels road, and to check the French advance along
it. But we must judge either of the two great opponents not by a single
picture of his own misconceptions alone, but by the combined picture of
the misconceptions of both, and especially by a consideration of the way
in which each retrieved or attempted to retrieve the results of those
misconceptions when a true idea of the enemy's dispositions was conveyed
to him.

       *       *       *       *       *

Here, then, we have Napoleon on the morning of Friday the 16th of June
prepared to deal with the Prussians. It is his right-hand body, under
Grouchy, which is deputed to do this, while he sends up the left-hand
body, under Ney, northwards to brush aside, or, at the worst, at least to
hold off whatever of the Duke of Wellington's command may be found upon
the Brussels road attempting to join the Prussians.

The general plan of what happened upon that decisive 16th is simple

The left-hand body, under Ney, goes forward up the Brussels road, finds
more resistance than it expected, but on the whole performs its task and
prevents any effective help being given by the western half of the
Allies--Wellington's half--to the eastern half--the Prussian half. But it
only prevents that task with difficulty and at the expense of a tactical
defeat. This action is called Quatre Bras.

Meanwhile, the right-hand body equally accomplishes the elements of its
task, engages the head of the Prussian line and defeats it, with extreme
difficulty, just before dark. This action is called Ligny.

But the minor business conducted by the left, under Ney, is only just
successful, and successful only in the sense that it does, at vast
expense, prevent a junction of Wellington with Blucher. The major business
conducted on the right, by Napoleon himself, in support of Grouchy, is
disappointing. The head of the Prussian line is not destroyed; the
Prussian army, though beaten, is free to retreat in fair order, and almost
in what direction it chooses.

The ultimate result is that Wellington and Blucher do manage to effect
their junction on the day after the morrow of Ligny and Quatre Bras, and
thus defeat Napoleon at Waterloo.

Now, why were both these operations, Quatre Bras and Ligny, incompletely
successful? Partly because there was more resistance along the Brussels
road than Napoleon had expected, and a far larger body of Prussians in
front of him than he had expected either; _but much more because a whole
French army corps, which, had it been in action, could have added a third
to the force of either the right or the left wing, was out of action all
day; and wandered aimlessly over the empty zone which separated Ney from
Grouchy, Quatre Bras from Ligny, the left half of Napoleon's divided army
from its right half_.

This it was which prevented what might have been possible--the thrusting
back of Wellington along the Brussels road, and even perhaps the
disorganisation of his forces. This it was which missed what was otherwise
certainly possible--the total ruin of the Prussian army.

This army corps thus thrown away unused in hours of aimless marching and
countermarching was the First Army Corps. Its commander was Erlon; and the
enormous blunder or fatality which permitted Erlon and his 20,000 to be as
useless upon the 16th of June as though they had been wiped out in some
defeat is what makes of the 16th of June the decisive day of the campaign.

It was Erlon's failure to be present _either_ with Ney _or_ with Grouchy,
either upon the left or upon the right, either at Quatre Bras or at Ligny,
while each of those two actions were in doubt, which made it possible for
Wellington's troops to stand undefeated in the west, for the Prussians to
retire--not intact, but still an army--from the east, and for both to
unite upon the day after the morrow, the Sunday, and destroy the French
army at Waterloo.

It is upon Erlon's blunder or misfortune that the whole issue turns, and
upon the Friday, the 16th of June, in the empty fields between Quatre-Bras
and Ligny, much more than upon the famous Sunday at Waterloo, that the
fate of Napoleon's army was decided.

In order to make this clear, let us first follow what happened in the
operations of Napoleon's right wing against the Prussians opposed to
it,--operations which bear in history the name of "the Battle of Ligny."


     "_If they fight here they will be damnably mauled._"

     (Wellington's words on seeing the defensive positions chosen by the
     Prussians at Ligny.)

Napoleon imagined that when he had crossed the Sambre with the bulk of his
force, the suddenness of his attack (for, though retarded as we have seen,
and though leaving troops upon the wrong bank of the river, it was sudden)
would find the Prussian forces in the original positions wherein he knew
them to have lain before he marched. He did not think that they would yet
have had the time, still less the intention, to concentrate. Those
original positions the map upon p. 41 makes plain.

The 124,000 men and more, which lay under the supreme command of Blucher,
had been spread before the attack began along the whole extended line from
Liège to Charleroi, and had been disposed regularly from left to right in
four corps d'armée.

The first of these had its headquarters in Charleroi itself, its furthest
outpost was but five miles east of the town, its three brigades had
Charleroi for their centre; its reserve cavalry was at Sombreffe, its
reserve artillery at Gembloux. The Second Corps had its headquarters
twenty miles away east, at Namur, and occupied posts in the country as far
off as Hannut (thirty miles away from Charleroi).

The Third Corps had its headquarters at Ciney in the Ardennes, and was
scattered in various posts throughout that forest, its furthest cantonment
being no nearer than Dinant, which, by the only good road available, was
nearer forty than thirty miles from Napoleon's point of attack.

Finally, the Fourth Corps was as far away as Liège (nearer fifty than
forty miles by road from the last cantonment of the First Corps), and
having its various units scattered round the neighbourhood of that town.

Napoleon, therefore, attacking Charleroi suddenly, imagined that he would
have to deal only with the First Corps at Charleroi and its neighbourhood.
He did not think that the other three corps had information in time to
enable them to come up westward towards the end of the line and meet him.
The outposts of the First Corps had, of course, fallen back before the
advance of the Emperor's great army; the mass of that First Corps was, he
knew, upon this morning of the 16th, some mile or two north and east of
Fleurus, astraddle of the great road which leads from Charleroi to
Gembloux. At the very most, and supposing this First Corps (which was of
33,000 men, under Ziethen) had received reinforcements from the nearest
posts of the Second and the Third Corps, Napoleon did not think that he
could have in front of him more than some 40,000 men at the most.

He was in error. It had been arranged among the Prussian leaders that
resistance to Napoleon, when occasion might come for it, should be offered
in the neighbourhood of the cross-roads where the route from Charleroi to
Gembloux crosses that from Nivelles to Namur. In other words, they were
prepared to stand and fight between Sombreffe and the village of Ligny.
The plan had been prepared long beforehand. The whole of the First Corps
was in position with the morning, awaiting the Emperor's attack. The
Second Corps had been in motion for hours, and was marching up during all
that morning. So was the Third Corps behind it. Blucher himself had
arrived upon the field of battle the day before (the 15th), and had
written thence to his sovereign to say that he was fully prepared for
action the next day.

Indeed, Blucher on the 15th confidently expected victory, and the end of
the campaign then and there. He had a right to do so, for Napoleon's
advance had been met by so rapid a concentration that, a little after noon
on that Friday the 16th, and before the first shots were fired, well over
80,000 men were drawn up to receive the shock of Napoleon's right wing.
But that right wing all told, even when the belated French troops beyond
the Sambre had finally crossed that river, and even when the Emperor had
brought up the Guard and the reserve, numbered but 63,000. Supposing the
French had been able to use every man, which they were not, they counted
but seven to nine of their opponents. And the nine were upon the
defensive; the seven had to undertake the task of an assault.

It was late in the day before battle was joined. Napoleon had reached
Fleurus at about ten o'clock in the morning, but it was four hours more
before he had brought all his troops across the river, and by the time he
had done so two things had happened. First, the Duke of Wellington (who,
as we shall see later, had come to Quatre Bras that morning, and had
written to Blucher telling him of his arrival) rode off in person to the
Prussian positions and discussed affairs near the windmill of Bussy with
the Prussian Commander-in-chief. In this conversation, Wellington
undoubtedly promised to effect, if he could, a junction with the Prussians
in the course of the afternoon. Even without that aid Blucher felt fairly
sure of victory; with it, he could be perfectly confident.

[Illustration: The Prussian concentration before Ligny, showing the
junction of the First, Second, and Third Corps on the morning of June
16th, and the inability of the Fourth Corps to come up in time.]

As matters turned out, Wellington found himself unable to effect his
junction with Blucher. Ney, as we shall see later, found in front of him
on the Brussels road much heavier opposition than he had imagined, but
Wellington was also surprised to find to what strength the French force
under Ney was at Quatre Bras. Wellington, as we shall see, held his own on
that 16th of June, but was quite unable to come up in succour of Blucher
when the expected victory of that general turned to a defeat.

The second thing that happened in those hours was Napoleon's discovery
that the Prussian troops massing to oppose him before Ligny were going to
be much more than a single corps. It looked to him more like the whole
Prussian army. It was, indeed, three-quarters of that army, for it
consisted of the First, the Second, and the Third Corps. Only the Fourth,
with its headquarters at distant Liège, had not been able to arrive in
time. This Fourth Corps would also have been present, and would probably
have turned the scale in favour of the Prussians, had the staff orders
been sent out promptly and conveyed with sufficient rapidity. As it was,
its most advanced units got no further west, during the course of the
action, than about halfway between Liège and the battlefield.

Napoleon was enabled to discover with some ease the great numbers which
had concentrated to oppose him from the fact that these numbers had
concentrated upon a defective position. Wellington, the greatest defensive
general of his time, at once discovered this weakness in Blucher's chosen
battlefield, and was provoked by the discovery to the exclamation which
stands at the head of this section. The rolling land occupied by the
Prussian army lay exposed in a regular sweep downwards towards the heights
upon which lay the French, and the Prussian army as it deployed came
wholly under the view of its enemy. Nothing was hidden; and a further
effect was that, as Napoleon himself remarked, all the artillery work
of the French side went home. If a round missed the foremost positions of
the Prussian army, it would necessarily fall within the ranks behind them.

This discovery, that there lay before him not one corps but a whole army,
seemed to Napoleon, upon one condition, an advantage. The new development
would, upon that one condition, give him, if his troops were of the
quality he estimated them to be, a complete victory over the united
Prussian force, and might well terminate the campaign on that afternoon
and in that place. That one condition was the possibility of getting Ney
upon the left, or some part at least of Ney's force, to leave the task of
holding off Wellington, to come down upon the flank of the Prussians from
the north and west, to envelop them, and thus, in company with the troops
of Napoleon himself, to destroy the three Prussian Army Corps altogether.

Had that condition been fulfilled, the campaign would indeed have come to
an end decisively in Napoleon's favour, and, as he put it in a famous
phrase, "not a gun" of the army opposing him "should escape."

Unfortunately for the Emperor, that one condition was not fulfilled. The
63,000 Frenchmen of the right wing, under Napoleon, did indeed defeat and
drive off the 80,000 men opposed to them. But that opposing army was not
destroyed; it was not contained; it remained organised for further
fighting, and it survived to decide Waterloo.

In order to appreciate Napoleon's idea and how it might have succeeded,
let the reader consider the dispositions of the battle of Ligny.

The battlefield named in history after the village of Ligny consists of a
number of communes, of which that village is the central one. The Prussian
army held the villages marked on the map by the names of Tongrinelle and
Tongrinne, to the east of Ligny; it held Brye, St Amand, and Wagnelée to
the east. It held also the heights behind upon the great road leading from
Nivelles to Namur. When Napoleon had at last got his latest troops over
from beyond the Sambre on to the field of battle, which was not until just
on two o'clock in the afternoon, the plan he formed was to hold the
Prussian left and centre by a vigorous attack, that is, to pin the
Prussians down to Tongrinne, Tongrinelle, and Ligny, while, on the other
front, the east and south front of the Prussians, another vigorous attack
should be driving them back out of Wagnelée and St Amand.


The plan can be further elucidated by considering the elements of the
battle as they are sketched in the map over leaf. Napoleon's troops at C C
C were to hold the Prussian left at H, to attack the Prussian right at D,
with the Guard at E left in reserve for the final effort.

By thus holding the Prussians at H and pushing them in at D, he would here
begin to pen them back, and it needed but the arrival on the field of a
fresh French force attacking the Prussians along A B to destroy the force
so contained and hemmed in. For that fresh force Napoleon depended upon
new and changed instructions which he despatched to Ney when he saw the
size of the Prussian force before him. During Napoleon's main attack, some
portion of Ney's force, and if possible the whole of it, should appear
unexpectedly from the north and west, marching down across the fields
between Wagnelée and the Nivelles-Namur road, and coming on the north of
the enemy at A B, so as to attack him not only in the flank but in the
rear. He would then be unable to retreat in the direction of _Wavre_
(W)--a broken remnant might escape towards Namur (N). But it was more
likely that the whole force would be held and destroyed.

[Illustration: Elements of Ligny.]

Supposing that Napoleon's 63,000 showed themselves capable of holding, let
alone partially driving in, the 80,000 in front of them, the sudden and
unexpected appearance of a new force in the height of the action, adding
another twenty or thirty thousand to the French troops already engaged,
coming upon the flank and spreading to the rear of the Prussian host,
would inevitably have destroyed that host, and, to repeat Napoleon's
famous exclamation, "not a gun would have escaped."

The reader may ask: "If this plan of victory be so obvious, why did
Napoleon send Ney off with a separate left wing of forty to fifty thousand
men towards Quatre Bras?"

The answer is: that when, upon the day before, the Thursday, Napoleon had
made this disposition, and given it as the general orders for that Friday,
he had imagined only one corps of Prussians to be before him.

The right wing, with which the Emperor himself stayed, numbering, as we
have seen, about 63,000 men, would have been quite enough to deal with
that one Prussian corps; and he had sent so large a force, under Ney, up
the Brussels road, not because he believed it would meet with serious
opposition, but because this was to be the line of his principal advance,
and it was his intention to occupy the town of Brussels at the very first
opportunity. Having dealt with the single Prussian corps, as he had first
believed it would be, in front of Fleurus, he meant that same evening to
come back in person to the Brussels road and, in company with Ney, to
conduct decisive operations against Wellington's half of the Allies, which
would then, of course, be hopelessly outnumbered.

But when Napoleon saw, a little after midday of the Friday, that he had to
deal with nearly the whole of the Prussian army, he perceived that the
great force under Ney would be wasted out there on the west--supposing it
to be meeting with little opposition--and had far better be used in
deciding a crushing victory over the Prussians. To secure such a victory
would, without bothering about the Duke of Wellington's forces to the
westward, be quite enough to determine the campaign in favour of the

As early as two o'clock a note was sent to Ney urging him, when he had
brushed aside such slight resistance as the Emperor expected him to find
upon the Brussels road, to return and help to envelop the Prussian forces,
which the Emperor was about to attack. At that hour it was not yet quite
clear to Napoleon how large the Prussian force really was. This first note
to Ney, therefore, was unfortunately not as vigorous as it might have
been; though, even if it had been as vigorous as possible, Ney, who had
found unexpected resistance upon the Brussels road, could certainly not
have come up to help Napoleon with his whole force. He might, however,
have spared a portion of it, and that portion, as we shall see later,
would have been most obviously Erlon's corps--the First. Rather more than
an hour later, at about a quarter-past three, when Napoleon had just
joined battle with the Prussians, he got a note from Ney informing him
that the left wing was meeting with considerable resistance, and could
hardly abandon the place where it was engaged before Quatre Bras to come
up against the Prussian flank at Ligny. Napoleon sent a note back to say
that, none the less, an effort must be made at all costs to send Ney's
forces to come over to him to attack the Prussian flank, for such an
attack would mean the winning of a great decisive battle.

The distance over which these notes had to be carried to and fro, from
Napoleon to Ney, was not quite five miles. The Emperor might therefore
fairly expect after his last message that in the late middle of the
afternoon--say half-past five or six--troops would appear upon his
north-west horizon and march down to his aid. In good time such troops did
appear; how inconclusively it will be my business to record.

Meanwhile, Napoleon had begun the fight at Ligny with his usual signal of
three cannonshots, and between three and four o'clock the front of the
whole army was engaged. It was for many hours mere hammer-and-tongs
fighting, the French making little impression upon their right against
Ligny or the villages to the east of it, but fighting desperately for St
Amand and for Wagnelée. Such a course was part of Napoleon's plan, for he
had decided, as I have said, only to hold the Prussian left, to strike
hardest at their right, and, when his reinforcement should come from Ney,
to turn that right, envelop it, and so destroy the whole Prussian army.

These villages upon the Prussian right were taken and retaken in a series
of furious attacks and counter-attacks, which it would be as tedious to
detail as it must have been intolerable to endure.

All this indecisive but furious struggle for the line of villages (not one
of which was as yet carried and held permanently by the French) lasted
over two hours. It was well after five o'clock when there appeared, far
off, under the westering sun, a new and large body of troops advancing
eastward as though to reach that point between Wagnelée and St Amand where
the left of the French force was struggling for mastery with the right of
the Prussians. For a moment there was no certitude as to what this distant
advancing force might be. But soon, and just when fortune appeared for a
moment to be favouring Blucher's superior numbers and the French line was
losing ground, the Emperor learned that it was his First Army Corps, under
the command of Erlon which was thus approaching.

At that moment--in the neighbourhood of six o'clock in the
evening--Napoleon must have believed that his new and rapidly formed plan
of that afternoon, with its urgent notes to Quatre Bras and its appeal for
reinforcement, had borne fruit; a portion at least of Ney's command had
been detached, as it seemed, to deliver that final and unexpected attack
upon the Prussian flank which was the keystone of the whole scheme.

Coincidently with the news that those distant advancing thousands were his
own men and would turn this doubtful struggle into a decisive victory for
the Emperor came the news--unexplained, inexplicable--that Erlon's troops
would advance no further! That huge distant body of men, isolated in the
empty fields to the westward; that reinforcement upon which the fate of
Napoleon and of the French army hung, drew no nearer. Watched from such a
distance, they might seem for a short time to be only halted. Soon it was
apparent that they were actually retiring. They passed back again,
retracing their steps beyond the western horizon, and were lost to the
great struggle against the Prussians. Why this amazing countermarch, with
all its catastrophic consequences was made will be discussed later. It is
sufficient to note that it rendered impossible that decisive victory which
Napoleon had held for a moment within his grasp. His resource under such a
disappointment singularly illustrates the nature of his mind.

Already the Emperor had determined, before any sign of advancing aid had
appeared, that if he were left alone to complete the decision, if he was
not to be allowed by fate to surround and destroy the Prussian force, he
might at least drive it from the field with heavy loss, and, as far as
possible, demoralised. In the long struggle of the afternoon he had meant
but to press the Prussian line, while awaiting forces that should complete
its envelopment; these forces being now denied him, he determined to
change his plan, to use his reserves, the Guard, and to drive the best
fighting material he had, like a spearhead, at the centre of the Prussian
positions. Since he could not capture, he would try and break.

As the hope of aid from Erlon's First Corps gradually disappeared, he
decided upon this course. It was insufficient. He could not hope by it to
destroy his enemy wholly. But he could drive him from the field and
perhaps demoralise him, or so weaken him with loss as to leave him

Just at the time when Napoleon had determined thus to strike at the centre
of the Prussian fine, Blucher, full of his recent successes upon his right
and the partial recapture of the village of St Amand, had withdrawn
troops from that centre to pursue his advantage. It was the wrong moment.
While Blucher was thus off with the bulk of his men towards St Amand, the
Old Guard, with the heavy cavalry of the Guard, and Milhaud's cavalry as
well--all Napoleon's reserve--drew up opposite Ligny village for a final

Nearly all the guns of the Guard and all those of the Fourth Corps crashed
against the village to prepare the assault, and at this crisis of the
battle, as though to emphasise its character, a heavy thunderstorm broke
over the combatants, and at that late hour (it was near seven) darkened
the evening sky.

It was to the noise and downpour of that storm that the assault was
delivered, the Prussian centre forced, and Ligny taken.

When the clouds cleared, a little before sunset, this strongest veteran
corps of Napoleon's army had done the business. Ligny was carried and
held. The Prussian formation, from a convex line, was now a line bent
inwards at its centre and all but broken.

Blucher had rapidly returned from the right to meet the peril. He charged
at the head of his Uhlans. The head of the French column of Guards
reserved their fire until the horse was almost upon them; then, in volley
after volley at a stone's-throw range, they broke that cavalry, which, in
their turn, the French cuirassiers charged as it fled and destroyed it.
Blucher's own horse was shot under him, the colonel of the Uhlans
captured, the whole of the Prussian centre fell into disorder and was
crushed confusedly back towards the Nivelles-Namur road.

Darkness fell, and nothing more could be accomplished. The field was won,
indeed, but the Prussian army was still an organisation and a power. It
had lost heavily in surrenders, flight, and fallen, but its main part was
still organised. It was driven to retreat in the darkness, but remained
ready, when time should serve, to reappear. It kept its order against the
end of the French pressure throughout the last glimmer of twilight; and
when darkness fell, the troops of Blucher, though in retreat, were in a
retreat compact and orderly, and the bulk of his command was saved from
the enemy and available for further action.

Thus ended the battle of Ligny, glorious for the Emperor, who had achieved
so much success against great odds and after the hottest combat; but a
failure of his full plan, for the host before him was still in existence:
it was free to retreat in what direction, east or north, it might choose.
The choice was made with immediate and conquering decision: the order
passed in the darkness, "By Tilly on Wavre." The Prussian staff had not
lost its head under the blow of its defeat. It preserved a clear view of
the campaign, with its remaining chances, and the then beaten army corps
were concentrated upon a movement northwards. Word was sent to the fresh
and unused Fourth Corps to join the other three at _Wavre_, and the march
was begun which permitted Blucher, forty hours later, to come up on the
flank of the French at Waterloo and destroy them.


Such had been the result of the long afternoon's work upon the right-hand
or eastern battlefield, that of Ligny, where Napoleon had been in personal

In spite of his appeals, no one had reached him from the western field,
and the First Corps had only appeared in Napoleon's neighbourhood to
disappear again.

What had been happening on that western battlefield, three to four miles
away, which had thus prevented some part at least of Ney's army coming up
upon the flank of the Prussians at Ligny, towards the end of the day, and
inflicting upon Blucher a complete disaster?

What had happened was the slow, confused action known to history as the
battle of Quatre Bras.

It will be remembered that Ney had been entrusted by Napoleon with the
absolute and independent command of something less than half of his whole

He had put at his disposal the First and the Second Army Corps, under
Erlon and Reille respectively--nearly 46,000 men; and to these he had
added, by an afterthought, eight regiments of heavy cavalry, commanded by

The rôle of this force, in Napoleon's intention, was simply to advance up
the Brussels road, brushing before it towards the left or west, away from
the Prussians, as it went, the outposts of that western half of the allied
army, which Wellington commanded.

We have seen that Napoleon, who had certainly arrived quickly and
half-unexpectedly at the point of junction between Wellington's scattered
forces and those of the Prussians, when he crossed the Sambre at
Charleroi, overestimated his success. He thought his enemy had even less
notice of his advance than that enemy really had; he thought that enemy
had had less time to concentrate than he had really had. Napoleon
therefore necessarily concluded that his enemy had concentrated to a less
extent than he actually had.

That mistake had the effect, in the case of the army of the right, which
he himself commanded, of bringing him up against not one Prussian army
corps but three. This accident had not disconcerted him, for he hoped to
turn it into a general disaster for the Prussians, and to take advantage
of their unexpected concentration to accomplish their total ruin. But such
a plan was dependent upon the left-hand or western army, that upon the
Brussels road under Ney, not finding anything serious in front of it. Ney
could spare men less easily if the Emperor's calculation of the resistance
likely to be found on the Brussels road should be wrong. It was wrong.
That resistance was not slight but considerable, and Ney was not free to
come to Napoleon's aid. Tardy as had been the information conveyed to the
Duke of Wellington, and grievously as the Duke of Wellington had
misunderstood its importance, there was more in front of Ney upon the
Brussels road than the Emperor had expected. What there was, however,
might have been pushed back--after fairly heavy fighting it is true, but
without any risk of failure--but for another factor in the situation,
which was Ney's own misjudgment and inertia.

Napoleon himself said later that his marshal was no longer the same man
since the disasters of two years before; but even if Ney had been as alert
as ever, misjudgment quite as much as lack of will must have entered into
what he did. He had thought, as the Emperor had, that there would be
hardly anything in front of him upon the Brussels road. But there was this
difference between the two errors: Ney was on the spot, and could have
found out with his cavalry scouts quite early on the morning of Friday the
16th what he really had to face. He preferred to take matters for granted,
and he paid a heavy price. He thought that there was plenty of time for
him to advance at his leisure; and, thinking this, he must have further
concluded that to linger upon that part of the Brussels road which was
nearest the Emperor's forthcoming action to the east by Ligny would be
good policy in case the Emperor should have need of him there.

On the night of the 15th Ney himself was at Frasnes, while the furthest of
his detachments was no nearer than the bridge of Thuin over the Sambre,
sixteen miles away. The rough sketch printed opposite will show how very
long that line was, considering the nearness of the strategical point
Quatre Bras, which it was his next business to occupy. The Second Army
Corps under Reille was indeed fairly well moved up, and all in the
neighbourhood of Gosselies by the night between Thursday 15th and Friday
16th of June. But the other half of the force, the First Army Corps under
Erlon, was strung out over miles of road behind.

To concentrate all those 50,000 men, half of them spread out over so much
space, meant a day's ordinary marching; and one would have thought that
Ney should have begun to concentrate before night fell upon the 15th. He
remembered, however, that the men were fatigued, he thought he had plenty
of time before him, and he did not effect their concentration. The mass of
the Second Army Corps (Reille's) was, as I have said, near Gosselies on
the Friday dawn; but Erlon, with the First Army Corps, was not in
disposition to bring the bulk of it up by the same time. He could not
expect to be near Quatre Bras till noon or one o'clock. But even to this
element of delay, due to his lack of precision, Ney added further delay,
due to slackness in orders.


It was eleven o'clock on the morning of that Friday the 16th before Ney
sent a definite order to Reille to march; it was _twelve_ before the head
of that Second Army Corps set out up the great road to cover the four or
five miles that separated them from Ney's headquarters at Frasnes. Erlon,
lying next behind Reille, could not advance until Reille's last division
had taken the road. So Erlon, with the First Army Corps, was not in column
and beginning his advance with his head troops until after one o'clock.

At about half-past one, then, we have the first troops of Reille's army
corps reaching Ney at Frasnes, its tail-end some little way out of
Gosselies; while at the same hour we have Erlon's First Army Corps
marching in column through Gosselies.

It would have been perfectly possible, at the expense of a little fatigue
to the men, to have had the Second Army Corps right up at Frasnes and in
front of it and deployed for action by nine o'clock, while Erlon's army
corps, the First, coming behind it as a reserve, an equal body in numbers,
excellence, and order, would have taken the morning to come up. In other
words, Ney could have had more than 20,000 men ready for the attack on
Quatre Bras by mid-morning, with as many men an hour or two behind them,
and ready on their arrival to act as a reserve. As a matter of fact, he
waited with his single battalion and a few horsemen at his headquarters at
Frasnes, only giving the orders we have seen, which did not bring Reille's
head columns up to him till as late as half-past one. It was well after
two o'clock before Reille's troops had deployed in front of Frasnes and
this Second Army Corps were ready to attack the position at Quatre Bras,
which Ney still believed to be very feebly held. The other half of Ney's
command, the First Army Corps, under Erlon, was still far away down the

This said, it behoves us to consider the strategical value of the Quatre
Bras position, and later to see how far Ney was right in thinking that it
was still quite insufficiently furnished with defenders, even at that late
hour in the day.

Armies must march by roads. At any rate, the army marching by road has a
vast advantage over one attempting an advance across country; and the
better kept-up the road the greater advantage, other things being equal,
has the army using it over another army debarred from its use.

Quatre Bras is the cross-way of two great roads. The first road is that
main road from north to south, leading from the frontier and Charleroi to
Brussels; along this road, it was Napoleon's ultimate intention to sweep,
and up this road he was on that morning of the 16th sending Ney to clear
the way for him. The second road is the great road east and west from
Nivelles to Namur, which was in June 1815 the main line of communication
along which the two halves of the Allies could effect their junction.

The invader, then, when he held Quatre Bras, could hold up troops coming
against him from the north, troops coming against him from the east, or
troops coming against him from the west. He could prevent, or rather
delay, their junction. He would have stepped in between.

But Quatre Bras has advantages greater than this plain and elementary
strategical advantage. In the first place, it dominates the whole
countryside. A patch or knoll, 520 feet above the sea, the culminating
point of the plateau, is within a few yards of the cross-roads. Standing
there, a few steps to the west of the highway, you look in every direction
over a rolling plain, of which you occupy the highest point for some miles

Now, this position of the "Quatre Bras" or "Cross Roads" can be easily
defended against a foe coming from the south, as were the two corps under
Ney. In 1815 its defence was easier still.

A large patch of undergrowth, cut in rotation, called the Wood of Bossu,
ran along the high road from Frasnes and Charleroi, flanking that road to
the west, and forming cover for troops that might wish to forbid access
along it. The ground falls somewhat rapidly in front of the cross-roads to
a little stream, and just where the stream crosses the road is the walled
farm of Gemioncourt, which can be held as an advanced position, while in
front of the fields where the Wood of Bossu once stood is the group of
farm buildings called Pierrepont. Finally, that arm of the cross-roads
which overlooks the slope down to Gemioncourt ran partly on an embankment
which could be used for defence as a ready-made earthwork.

Now, let us see what troops were actually present that Friday morning upon
the allied side to defend this position against Ney's advance, and what
others were near enough in the neighbourhood to come up in defence of the
position during the struggle.

There was but one division of the Allies actually on the spot. This was
the Netherlands division, commanded by Perponcher; and the whole of it,
including gunners and sappers (it had hardly any cavalry[8] with it), was
less than 8000 strong. It was a very small number to hold the extended
position which the division at once proceeded to occupy. They had to cover
a front of over 3000 yards, not far short of two miles.

They did not know, indeed, what Ney was bringing up against them;
Wellington himself, later on, greatly underestimated the French forces on
that day. Now even if Ney had had far less men than he had, it was none
the less a very risky thing to disperse the division as Perponcher did,
especially with no more than fourteen guns to support him,[9] but under
the circumstances it turned out to be a wise risk to have taken. Ney had
hesitated already, and was in a mood to be surprised at any serious
resistance. The more extended the veil that was drawn before him, the
better for the Allies and their card of delay. For everything depended
upon time. Ney, as will be seen, had thrown away his chance of victory by
his extreme dilatoriness, and during the day the Allies were to bring up
unit after unit, until by nightfall nearly 40,000 men not only held Quatre
Bras successfully, but pushed the French back from their attack upon it.

Perponcher, then, put a battalion and five guns in front of Gemioncourt,
another battalion inside the walls of the farm, four battalions and a
mounted battery before the Wood of Bossu and the farm of Pierrepont. Most
of his battalions were thus stretched in front of the position of Quatre
Bras, the actual Cross Roads where he left only two as a reserve.

Against the Dutchmen, thus extended, the French order to advance was
given, and somewhere between half-past two and a quarter to three the
French attack began. It was delivered upon Gemioncourt and the fields to
the right or east of the Brussels road.

The action that followed is one simple enough to understand by
description, but difficult to express upon a map. It is difficult to
express upon a map because it consisted in the repeated attack of one
fixed number of men against an increasing number of men.

Ney was hammering all that afternoon with a French force which soon
reached its maximum. The position against which he was hammering, though
held at first by a force greatly inferior to his own, began immediately
afterwards to receive reinforcement after reinforcement, until at the
close of the action the defenders were vastly superior in numbers to the

I have attempted in the rough pen sketch opposite this page to express
this state of affairs on the allied side during the battle by marking in
successive degrees of shading the bodies of the defence in the order in
which they came up, but the reader must remember the factor of time, and
how all day long Wellington's command at Quatre Bras kept on swelling and
swelling by driblets, as the units marched in at a hurried summons from
various points behind the battlefield. This gradual reinforcement of the
defence gives all its character to the action.


The French, then, began the assault by an advance to the right or east of
the Brussels road. They cleared out the defenders from Gemioncourt; they
occupied that walled position; they poured across the stream, and were
beginning to take the rise up to Quatre Bras when, at about three o'clock,
Wellington, who had been over at Ligny discussing the position with
Blucher, rode up and saw how critical the moment was.

In a few minutes the first French division might be up to the cross-roads
at Q.

Bossu Wood, with the four battalions holding it, had not yet been attacked
by the French, because their second division of Reille's Second Corps
(under Napoleon's brother Jerome), had not yet come up; Erlon's First
Corps was still far off, down the road. The men in the Bossu Wood came out
to try and stop the French advance. They were thrown back by French
cavalry, and even as this was proceeding Jerome's division arrived,
attacked the south of Bossu Wood, and brought up the whole of Ney's forces
to some 19,000 or 20,000 men.

The French advance, so continued, would now undoubtedly have succeeded
against the 8000 Dutch at this moment of three o'clock (and Wellington's
judgment that the situation was critical at that same moment was only too
sound) had there not arrived precisely at that moment the first of his

A brigade of Dutch cavalry came up from the west along the Nivelles road,
and three brigades of infantry appeared marching hurriedly in from the
north, along the Brussels road; two of these brigades were British, under
the command of Kemp and of Pack, and they formed Picton's division. The
third were a brigade of Hanoverians, under Best. The British and the
Hanoverians formed along the Namur road at M N, protected by its
embankment, kneeling in the high wheat, and ready to fire when the enemy's
attacking line should come within close range of their muskets.

The newly arrived Dutch cavalry, on the other side of the road, charged
the advancing French, but were charged themselves in turn by French
cavalry, overthrown, and in their stampede carried Wellington and his
staff in a surge past the cross-roads; but the French cavalry, in its
turn, was compelled to retire by the infantry fire it met when it had
ridden too far. Immediately afterwards the French infantry as they reached
the Namur road came unexpectedly upon the just-arrived British and
Hanoverians, and were driven back in disorder by heavy volleying at close
range from the embankment and the deep cover beyond.

The cavalry charge and countercharge (Jerome beginning to clear the south
of the Bossu Wood), the check received by the French on the right from
Picton's brigade and the Hanoverians occupied nearly an hour. It was not
far short of four o'clock when Ney received that first urgent dispatch
from Napoleon which told him to despatch the enemy's resistance at Quatre
Bras, and then to come over eastward to Ligny and help against the

Ney could not obey. He had wasted the whole of a precious morning, and by
now, close on four o'clock in the afternoon, yet another unit came up to
increase the power of the defence, and to make his chance of carrying the
Quatre Bras cross-roads, of pushing back Wellington's command, of finding
himself free to send men to Napoleon increasingly doubtful.

The new unit which had come up was the corps under the Duke of Brunswick,
and when this arrived Wellington had for the first time a superiority of
numbers over Ney's single corps (there was still no sign of Erlon) though
he was still slightly inferior in guns.

However, the French advance was vigorously conducted. Nearly the whole of
the Wood of Bossu was cleared. The Brunswickers, who had been sent forward
along the road between Quatre Bras and Gemioncourt, were pushed back as to
their infantry; their cavalry broke itself against a French battalion.

It was in this doubly unsuccessful effort that the Duke of Brunswick, son
of the famous General of the earlier Revolutionary wars, fell, shot in the
stomach. He died that night in the village.

The check to this general advance of the French all along the line was
again given by the English troops along the Namur road. Picton seized the
moment, ordered a bayonet charge, and drove the French right down the
valley. His men were in turn driven back by the time they had cleared the
slope, but the check was given and the French never recovered it. Two
fierce cavalry charges by the French failed to break the English line,
though the Highlanders upon Pack's extreme right, close against Quatre
Bras itself, were caught before they could form square, and the second
phase of the battle ended in a draw.

Ney had missed the opportunity when the enemy in front of him were in
numbers less than half his own; he had failed to pierce their line when
reinforcements had brought up their numbers to a superiority over his own.
He must now set about a far more serious business, for there was every
prospect, as the afternoon advanced, that Wellington would be still
further reinforced, while Ney had nothing but his original 20,000--half
his command; of Erlon's coming there was not a sign! Yet another hour had
been consumed in the general French advance and its repulse, which I have
just described. It was five o'clock.

I beg the reader to concentrate his attention upon this point of the
action--the few minutes before and after the hour of five. A number of
critical things occurred in that short space of time, all of which must be
kept in mind.

The first was this: A couple of brigades came in at that moment to
reinforce Wellington. They gave him a 25 per cent. superiority in men, and
an appreciable superiority in guns as well.

In the second place, Ney was keeping the action at a standstill, waiting
until his own forces should be doubled by the arrival of Erlon's force.
Ney had been fighting all this while, as I have said, with only half his
command--the Second Army Corps of Reille. Erlon's First Army Corps formed
the second half, and when it came up--as Ney confidently expected it to do
immediately--it would double his numbers, and raise them from 20,000 to
40,000 men. With this superiority he could be sure of success, even if, as
was probable, further reinforcements should reach the enemy's line. It is
to be noted that it was due to Ney's own tardiness in giving orders that
Erlon was coming up so late, but by now, five o'clock, the head of his
columns might at any moment be seen debouching from Frasnes.

In the third place, while Ney was thus anxiously waiting for Erlon, and
seeing the forces in front of him swelling to be more and more superior to
his own, there came yet another message from Napoleon telling Ney how
matters stood in the great action that was proceeding five miles away,
urging him again with the utmost energy to have done at Quatre Bras, to
come back over eastward upon the flank of the Prussians at Ligny, and so
to destroy their army utterly and "to save France."

To have done with the action of Quatre Bras! But there were already
superior forces before Ney! And they were increasing! If he dreamt of
turning, it would be annihilation for his troops, or at the least the
catching of his army's and Napoleon's between two fires. He _might_ just
manage when Erlon came up--and surely Erlon must appear from one moment to
another--he _might_ just manage to overthrow the enemy in front of him so
rapidly as to have time to turn and appear at Ligny before darkness should
fall, from three to four hours later.

It all hung on Erlon:--He _might_! and at that precise moment, with his
impatience strained to breaking-point, and all his expectation turned on
Frasnes, whence the head of Erlon's column should appear, there rode up to
Ney a general officer, Delcambre by name. He came with a message. It was
from Erlon.... Erlon had abandoned the road to Quatre Bras; had understood
that he was not to join Ney after all, but to go east and help Napoleon!
He had turned off eastward to the right two and a half miles back, and was
by this time far off in the direction which would lead him to take part in
the battle of Ligny!

Under the staggering blow of this news Ney broke into a fury. It meant
possibly the annihilation of his body, certainly its defeat. He did two
things, both unwise from the point of view of his own battle, and one
fatal from the point of view of the whole campaign.

First, he launched his reserve cavalry, grossly insufficient in numbers
for such a mad attempt, right at the English line, in a despairing effort
to pierce such superior numbers by one desperate charge. Secondly, he sent
Delcambre back--not calculating distance or time--with peremptory orders
to Erlon, as his subordinate, to come back at once to the battlefield of
Quatre Bras.

There was, as commander to lead that cavalry charge, Kellerman. He had but
one brigade of cuirassiers: two regiments of horse against 25,000 men! It
was an amazing ride, but it could accomplish nothing of purport. It
thundered down the slope, breaking through the advancing English troops
(confused by a mistaken order, and not yet formed in square), cut to
pieces the gunners of a battery, broke a regiment of Brunswickers near the
top of the hill, and reached at last the cross-roads of Quatre Bras. Five
hundred men still sat their horses as the summit of the slope was reached.
The brigade had cut a lane right through the mass of the defence; it had
not pierced it altogether.

Some have imagined that if at that moment the cavalry of the Guard, which
was still in reserve, had followed this first charge by a second, Ney
might have effected his object and broken Wellington's line. It is
extremely doubtful, the numbers were so wholly out of proportion to such a
task. At any rate, the order for the second charge, when it came, came
somewhat late. The five hundred as they reined up on the summit of the
hill were met and broken by a furious cross-fire from the Namur road upon
the right, from the head of Bossu Wood upon the left, while yet another
unit, come up in this long succession to reinforce the defence--a battery
of the King's German Legion--opened upon them with grape. The poor remnant
of Kellerman's Horse turned and galloped back in confusion.

The second cavalry charge attempted by the French reserve, coming just too
late, necessarily failed, and at the same moment yet another
reinforcement--the first British division of the Guards, and a body of
Nassauers, with a number of guns--came up to increase the now overwhelming
superiority of Wellington's line.[10]

There was even an attempt at advance upon the part of Wellington.

As the evening turned to sunset, and the sunset to night, that advance was
made very slowly and with increasing difficulty--and all the while Ney's
embarrassed force, now confronted by something like double its own
numbers, and contesting the ground yard by yard as it yielded, received no
word of Erlon.

The clearing of the Wood of Bossu by the right wing of Wellington's army,
reinforced by the newly arrived Guards, took more than an hour. It took as
long to push the French centre back to Gemioncourt, and all through the
last of the sunlight the walls of the farm were desperately held. On the
left, Pierrepont was similarly held for close upon an hour. The sun had
already set when the Guards debouched from the Wood of Bossu, only to be
met and checked by a violent artillery fire from Pierrepont, while at the
same time the remnant of the cuirassiers charged again, and broke a
Belgian battalion at the edge of the wood.

By nine o'clock it was dark and the action ceased. Just as it ceased, and
while, in the last glimmerings of the light, the major objects of the
landscape, groups of wood and distant villages, could still be faintly
distinguished against the background of the gloom, one such object seemed
slowly to approach and move. It was first guessed and then perceived to be
a body of men: the head of a column began to debouch from Frasnes. It was
Erlon and his 20,000 returned an hour too late.

All that critical day had passed with the First Corps out of action. It
had _neither_ come up to Napoleon to wipe out the Prussians at Ligny,
_nor_ come back in its countermarch in time to save Ney and drive back
Wellington at Quatre Bras. It might as well not have existed so far as the
fortunes of the French were concerned, and its absence from either field
upon that day made defeat certain in the future, as the rest of these
pages will show.

       *       *       *       *       *

Two things impress themselves upon us as we consider the total result of
that critical day, the 16th of June, which saw Ney fail to hold the
Brussels road at Quatre Bras, and there to push away from the advance on
Brussels Wellington's opposing force, and which also saw the successful
escape of the Prussians from Ligny, an escape which was to permit them to
join Wellington forty-eight hours later and to decide Waterloo.

The first is the capital importance, disastrous to the French fortunes, of
Erlon's having been kept out of both fights by his useless march and


The second is the extraordinary way in which Wellington's command came up
haphazard, dribbling in by units all day long, and how that command owed
to Ney's caution and tardiness, much more than to its own General's
arrangements, the superiority in numbers which it began to enjoy from an
early phase in the battle.

I will deal with these two points in their order.

       *       *       *       *       *

As to the first:--

The whole of the four days of 1815, and the issue of Waterloo itself,
turned upon Erlon's disastrous counter-marching between Quatre Bras and
Ligny upon this Friday, the 16th of June, which was the decisive day of
the war.

What actually _happened_ has been sufficiently described. The useless
advance of Erlon's corps d'armée towards Napoleon and the right--useless
because it was not completed; the useless turning back of that corps
d'armée towards Ney and the left--useless because it could not reach Ney
in time,--these were the determining factors of that critical moment in
the campaign.

In other words, Erlon's zigzag kept the 20,000 of the First Corps out of
action all day. Had they been with Ney, the Allies under Wellington at
Quatre Bras would have suffered a disaster. Had they been with Napoleon,
the Prussians at Ligny would have been destroyed. As it was, the First
Army Corps managed to appear on _neither_ field. Wellington more than held
his own; the Prussians at Ligny escaped, to fight two days later at

Such are the facts, and they explain all that followed (see Map, next

But it has rightly proved of considerable interest to historians to
attempt to discover the human motives and the personal accidents of
temperament and misunderstanding which led to so extraordinary a blunder
as the utter waste of a whole army corps during a whole day, within an
area not five miles by four.

It is for the purpose of considering these human motives and personal
accidents that I offer these pages; for if we can comprehend Erlon's
error, we shall fill the only remaining historical gap in the story of
Waterloo, and determine the true causes of that action's result.


There are two ways of appreciating historical evidence. The first is the
lawyer's way: to establish the pieces of evidence as a series of
disconnected units, to docket them, and then to see that they are
mechanically pieced together; admitting, the while, only such evidence as
would pass the strict and fossil rules of our particular procedure in the
courts. This way, as might be inferred from its forensic origin, is
particularly adapted to arriving at a foregone conclusion. It is useless
or worse in an attempt to establish a doubtful truth.

The second way is that by which we continually judge all real evidence
upon matters that are of importance to us in our ordinary lives: the way
in which we invest money, defend our reputation, and judge of personal
risk or personal advantage in every grave case.

This fashion consists in admitting every kind of evidence, first hand,
second hand, third hand, documentary, verbal, traditional, and judging the
general effect of the whole, not according to set legal categories, but
according to our general experience of life, and in particular of human
psychology. We chiefly depend upon the way in which we know that men
conduct themselves under the influence of such and such emotions, of the
kind of truth and untruth which we know they will tell; and to this we add
a consideration of physical circumstance, of the laws of nature, and hence
of the degrees of probability attaching to the events which all this mass
of evidence relates.

It is only by this second method, which is the method of common-sense,
that anything can be made of a doubtful historical point. The legal method
would make of history what it makes of justice. Which God forbid!

Historical points are doubtful precisely because there is conflict of
evidence; and conflict of evidence is only properly resolved by a
consideration of the psychology of witnesses, coupled with a consideration
of the physical circumstances which limited the matter of their testimony.

Judged by these standards, the fatal march and countermarch of Erlon
become plain enough.

His failure to help either Ney or Napoleon was not treason, simply because
the man was not a traitor. It proceeded solely from obedience to orders;
but these orders were fatal because Ney made an error of judgment both as
to the real state of the double struggle--Quatre Bras, Ligny--and as to
the time required for the countermarch. This I shall now show.

Briefly, then:--

Erlon, as he was leading his army corps up to help Ney, his immediate
superior, turned it off the road before he reached Ney and led it away
towards Napoleon.

Why did he do this?

It was because he had received, not indeed from his immediate superior,
Ney himself, _but through a command of Napoleon's, which he knew to be
addressed to Ney_, the order to do so.

When Erlon had almost reached Napoleon he turned his army corps right
about face and led it off back again towards Ney.

Why did he do that?

It was because he had received at that moment _a further peremptory order
from Ney, his direct superior, to act in this fashion_.

Such is the simple and common-sense explanation of the motives under which
this fatal move and countermove, with its futile going and coming, with
its apparent indecision, with its real strictness of military discipline,
was conducted. As far as Erlon is concerned, it was no more than the
continual obedience of orders, or supposed orders, to which a soldier is
bound. With Ney's responsibility I shall deal in a moment.

Let me first make the matter plainer, if I can, by an illustration.

Fire breaks out in a rick near a farmer's house and at the same time in a
barn half a mile away. The farmer sends ten men with water-buckets and an
engine to put out the fire at the barn, while he himself, with another ten
men, but without an engine, attends to the rick. He gives to his foreman,
who is looking after the barn fire, the task of giving orders to the
engine, and the man at the engine is told to look to the foreman and no
one else for his orders. The foreman is known to be of the greatest
authority with his master. Hardly has the farmer given all these
instructions when he finds that the fire in the rick has spread to his
house. He lets the barn go hang, and sends a messenger to the foreman with
an urgent note to send back the engine at once to the house and rick. The
messenger finds the man with the engine on his way to the barn, intercepts
him, and tells him that the farmer has sent orders to the foreman that the
engine is to go back at once to the house. The fellow turns round with his
engine and is making his way towards the house when another messenger
comes posthaste _from the foreman direct_, telling him at all costs to
bring the engine back to the barn. The man with the engine turns once
more, abandons the house, but cannot reach the barn in time to save it.
The result of the shilly-shally is that the barn is burnt down, and the
fire at the farmer's house only put out after it has done grave damage.

The farmer is Napoleon. His rick and house are Ligny. The foreman is Ney,
and the barn is Quatre Bras. The man with the engine is Erlon, and the
engine is Erlon's command--the First Corps d'Armée.

There was no question of _contradictory_ orders in Erlon's mind, as many
historians seem to imagine; there was simply, from Erlon's standpoint, a
_countermanded_ order.

He had received, indeed, an order coming from the Emperor, but he had
received it only as the subordinate of Ney, and only, as he presumed, with
Ney's knowledge and consent, either given or about to be given. In the
midst of executing this order, he got another order countermanding it, and
proceeding directly from his direct superior. He obeyed this second order
as exactly as he had obeyed the first.

Such is, undoubtedly, the explanation of the thing, and Ney's is the mind,
the person, historically responsible for the whole business.

Let us consider the difficulties in the way of accepting this conclusion.
The first difficulty is that Ney would not have taken it upon himself to
countermand an order of Napoleon's. Those who argue thus neither know the
character of Ney nor the nature of the struggle at Quatre Bras; and they
certainly underestimate both the confusion and the elasticity of warfare.
Ney, a man of violent temperament (as, indeed, one might expect with such
courage), was in the heat of the desperate struggle at Quatre Bras when he
received Napoleon's order to abandon his own business (a course which was,
so late in the action, physically impossible). Almost at the same moment
Ney heard most tardily from a messenger whom Erlon had sent (a Colonel
Delcambre) that Erlon, with his 20,000 men--Erlon, who had distinctly been
placed under his orders--was gone off at a tangent, and was leaving him
with a grossly insufficient force to meet the rapidly swelling numbers of
Wellington. We have ample evidence of the rage into which he flew, and of
the fact that he sent back Delcambre with the absolutely positive order to
Erlon that he should turn round and come back to Quatre Bras.

Of course, if war were clockwork, if there were no human character in a
commander, if no latitude of judgment were understood in the very nature
of a great independent command such as Ney's was upon that day, if there
were always present before every independent commander's mental vision an
exact map of the operations, and, _at the same time_, a plan of the exact
position of all the troops upon it at any given moment--if all these
armchair conceptions of war were true, then Ney's order would have been
as undisciplined in character and as foolish in intention as it was
disastrous in effect.

But such conceptions are not true. Great generals entrusted with separate
forces, and told off to engage in a great action at a distance from the
supreme command, have, by the very nature of their mission, the widest
latitude of judgment left to them. They are perfectly free to decide, in
some desperate circumstance, that if their superior knew of that
circumstance, he would understand why an afterorder of his was not obeyed,
or was even directly countermanded. That Ney should have sent this furious
counterorder, therefore, to Erlon, telling him to come back instantly, in
spite of Napoleon's first note, though it was a grievous error, is one
perfectly explicable, and parallel to many other similar incidents that
diversify the history of war. In effect, Ney said to himself: "The Emperor
has no idea of the grave crisis at _my_ end of the struggle or he wouldn't
have sent that order. He is winning, anyhow; I am actually in danger of
defeat; and if I am defeated, Wellington's troops will pour through and
come up on the Emperor's army from the rear and destroy it. I have a
right, therefore, to summon Erlon back." Such was the rationale of Ney's
decision. His passionate mood did the rest.

A second and graver difficulty is this: By the time Erlon got the message
to come back, it was so late that he could not possibly bring his 20,000
up in time to be of any use to Ney at Quatre Bras. They could only arrive
on the field, as they did in fact arrive, when darkness had already set
in. It is argued that a general in Ney's position would have rapidly
calculated the distance involved, and would have seen that it was useless
to send for his subordinate at such an hour.

The answer to this suggestion is twofold. In the first place, a man under
hot fire is capable of making mistakes; and Ney was, at the moment when he
gave that order, under the hottest fire of the whole action. In the second
place, he could not have any very exact idea of where in all those four
miles of open fields behind him the head of Erlon's column might be, still
less where exactly Delcambre would find it by the time he had ridden back.
A mile either way would have made all the difference; if Erlon was
anywhere fairly close; if Delcambre knew exactly where to find him, and
galloped by the shortest route--if this and if that, it might still be
that Erlon would turn up just before darkness and decide the field in
Ney's favour.[11]

Considerable discussion has turned on whether, as the best authorities
believe, Erlon did or did not receive a pencilled note written personally
to him by the Emperor, telling him to turn at once and come to his,
Napoleon's, aid, and by his unexpected advent upon its flank destroy the
Prussian army.

As an explanation of the false move of Erlon back and forth, the existence
of this note is immaterial. The weight of evidence is in its favour, and
men will believe or disbelieve it according to the way in which they judge
human character and motive. For the purposes of a dramatic story the
incident of a little pencilled note to Erlon is very valuable, but as an
elucidation of the historical problem it has no importance, for, even if
he got such a note, Erlon only got it in connection with general orders,
which, he knew, were on their way to _Ney_, his superior.

The point for military history is that--

(_a_) Erlon, with the First Corps, on his way up to Quatre Bras that
afternoon, was intercepted by a messenger, who told him that the Emperor
wanted him to turn off eastward and go to Ligny, and not to Quatre Bras;

(_b_) He also knew that that message was intended also to be delivered,
and either had been or was about to be delivered, to his superior officer,
Ney. Therefore he went eastward as he had been told, believing that Ney
knew all about it; and therefore, also, on receiving a further direct
order from Ney to turn back again westward, he did turn back.

If we proceed to apportion the blame for that disastrous episode, which,
by permitting Blucher to escape, was the plain cause of Napoleon's
subsequent defeat at Waterloo, it is obvious that the blame must fall upon
Ney, who could not believe, in the heat of the violent action in which he
was involved, that Napoleon's contemporary action against Ligny could be
more decisive or more important than his own. It was a question of
exercising judgment, and of deciding whether Napoleon had justly judged
the proportion between his chances of a great victory and Ney's chances;
and further, whether a great victory at Ligny would have been of more
effect than a great victory or the prevention of a bad defeat at Quatre
Bras. Napoleon was right and Ney was wrong.

I have heard or read the further suggestion that Napoleon, on seeing
Erlon, or having him reported, not two miles away, should have sent him
further peremptory orders to continue his march and to come on to Ligny.

This is bad history. Erlon, as it was, was heading a trifle too much to
the south, so that Napoleon, who thought the whole of Ney's command to be
somewhat further up the Brussels road northward than it was, did not guess
at first what the new troops coming up might be, and even feared they
might be a detachment of Wellington's, who might have defeated Ney, and
now be coming in from the west to attack _him_.

He sent an orderly to find out what the newcomers were. The orderly
returned to report that the troops were Erlon's, but that they had turned
back. Had Napoleon sent again, after this, to find Erlon, and to make him
for a third time change his direction, it would have been altogether too
late to have used Erlon's corps d'armée at Ligny by the time it should
have come up. Napoleon had, therefore, no course before him but to do as
he did, namely, give up all hope of help from the west, and defeat the
Prussians at Ligny before him, if not decisively, at least to the best of
his ability, with the troops immediately to his hand.

       *       *       *       *       *

So much for Erlon.

Now for the second point: the way in which the units of Wellington's
forces dribbled in all day haphazard upon the position of Quatre Bras.

Wellington, as we saw on an earlier page, was both misinformed and
confused as to the nature and rapidity of the French advance into Belgium.
He did not appreciate, until too late, the importance of the position of
Quatre Bras, nor the intention of the French to march along the great
northern road. Even upon the field of Waterloo itself he was haunted by
the odd misconception that Napoleon's army would try and get across his
communications with the sea, and he left, while Waterloo was actually
being fought, a considerable force useless, far off upon his right, on
that same account.

The extent of Wellington's misjudgment we can easily perceive and
understand. Every general must, in the nature of war, misjudge to some
extent the nature of his opponent's movements, but the shocking errors
into which bad staff work led him in this his last campaign are quite

Wellington wrote to Blucher, on his arrival at the field of Quatre Bras,
at about half-past ten in the morning, a note which distinctly left
Blucher to understand that he might expect English aid during his
forthcoming battle with Napoleon at Ligny. He did not say so in so many
words, but he said: "My forces are at such and such places," equivalent,
that is, to saying, "My forces can come up quite easily, for they are
close by you," adding: "I do not see any large force of the enemy in front
of us; and I await news from your Highness, and the arrival of troops, in
order to determine my operations for the day."

In this letter, moreover, he said in so many words that his reserve, the
large body upon which he mainly depended, would be within three miles of
him by noon, the British cavalry within seven miles of him at the same

Then he rode over to see Blucher on the field of Ligny before Napoleon's
attack on that general had begun. He got there at about one o'clock.

An acrimonious discussion has arisen as to whether he promised to come up
and help Blucher shortly afterwards or not, but it is a discussion beside
the mark, for, in the first place, Wellington quite certainly _intended_
to come up and help the Prussians; and in the second place, he was quite
as certainly _unable_ to do so, for the French opposition under Ney which
he had under-estimated, turned out to be a serious thing.

But his letter, and his undoubted intention to come up and help Blucher,
depended upon his belief that the units of his army were all fairly close,
and that by, say, half-past one he would have the whole lot occupying the
heights of Quatre Bras.

Now, as a fact, the units of Wellington's command were scattered all over
the place, and it is astonishing to note the discrepancy between his idea
of their position and their real position on the morning of the day when
Quatre Bras was fought. When one appreciates what that discrepancy was,
one has a measure of the bad staff work that was being done under
Wellington at the moment.


The plan (p. 127)[12] distinguishes between the real positions of
Wellington's command on the morning of the 16th when he was writing his
letter to Blucher and the positions which Wellington, in that letter,
erroneously ascribes to them. It will show the reader the wide difference
there was between Wellington's idea of where his troops were and their
actual position on that morning. It needs no comment. It is sufficient in
itself to explain why the action at Quatre Bras consisted not in a set
army meeting and repelling the French (it could have destroyed them as
things turned out, seeing Erlon's absence), but in the perpetual arrival
of separate and hurried units, which went on from midday almost until



When the Prussians had concentrated to meet Napoleon at Ligny they had
managed to collect, in time for the battle, three out of their four army

These three army corps were the First, the Second, and the Third, and, as
we have just seen, they were defeated.

But, as we have also seen, they were not thoroughly defeated. They were
not disorganised, still less were the bulk of them captured and disarmed.
Most important of all, they were free to retreat by any road that did not
bring them against their victorious enemy. In other words, they were free
to retreat to the north as well as to the east.

The full importance of this choice will, after the constant reiteration of
it in the preceding pages, be clear to the reader. A retreat towards the
east, and upon the line of communications which fed the Prussian army,
would have had these two effects: First, it would have involved in the
retirement that fresh Fourth Army Corps under Bulow which had not yet come
into action, and which numbered no less than 32,000 men. For it lay to the
east of the battlefield. In other words, that army corps would have been
wasted, and the whole of the Prussian forces would have been forced out of
the remainder of the campaign. Secondly, it would have finally separated
Blucher and his Prussians from Wellington's command. The Duke, with his
western half of the allied forces, would have had to stand up alone to the
mass of Napoleon's army, which would, after the defeat of the Prussians at
Ligny, naturally turn to the task of defeating the English General.

Now the fact of capital importance upon which the reader must concentrate
if he is to grasp the issue of the campaign is the fact that the French
staff fell into an error as to the true direction of the Prussian retreat.

Napoleon, Soult, and all the heads of the French army were convinced that
the Prussian retreat _was_ being made by that eastern road.

As a fact, the Prussians, under the cover of darkness, had retired _not_
east but north.

The defeated army corps, the First, Second, and Third, did not fall back
upon the fresh and unused Fourth Corps; they left it unhampered to march
northward also; and all during the darkness the Prussian forces, as a
whole, were marching in roughly parallel columns upon Wavre and its

It was this escape to the north instead of the east that made it possible
for the Prussians to effect their junction with Wellington upon the day of
Waterloo; but it must not be imagined that this supremely fortunate
decision to abandon the field of their defeat at Ligny in a northerly
rather than an easterly direction was at first deliberately conceived by
the Prussians with the particular object of effecting a junction with
Wellington later on.

In the first place, the Prussians had no idea what line Wellington's
retreat would take. They knew that he was particularly anxious about his
communications with the sea, and quite as likely to move westward as
northward when Napoleon should come against him.

The full historical truth, accurately stated, cannot be put into the
formula, "The Prussians retreated northward in order to be able to join
Wellington two days later at Waterloo." To state it so would be to read
history backwards, and to presuppose in the Prussian staff a knowledge of
the future. The true formula is rather as follows:--"The Prussians retired
northward, and not eastward, because the incompleteness of their defeat
permitted them to do so, and thus at once to avoid the waste of their
Fourth Army Corps and to gain positions where they would be able, if
necessity arose, to get news of what had happened to Wellington."

In other words, to retreat northwards, though the decision to do so
depended only upon considerations of the most general kind, was wise
strategy, and the opportunity for that piece of strategy was seized; but
the retreat northwards was not undertaken with the specific object of at
once rejoining Wellington.

It must further be pointed out that this retreat northwards, though it
abandoned the fixed line of communications leading through Namur and Liège
to Aix la Chapelle, would pick up in a very few miles another line of
communications through Louvain, Maestricht, and Cologne. The Prussian
commanders, in determining upon this northward march, were in no way
risking their supply nor hazarding the existence of their army upon a
great chance. They were taking advantage of one of two courses left open
to them, and that one the wiser of the two.

This retreat upon Wavre was conducted with a precision and an endurance
most remarkable when we consider the fact that it took place just after a
severe, though not a decisive, defeat.

Of the eighty odd thousand Prussians engaged at Ligny, probably 12,000 had
fallen, killed or wounded. When the Prussian centre broke, many units
became totally disorganised; and, counting the prisoners and runaways who
failed to rejoin the colours, we must accept as certainly not exaggerated
the Prussian official report of a loss of 15,000.[13]

In spite, I say, of this severe defeat, the order of the retreat was well
maintained, and was rewarded by an exceptional rapidity.

The First Corps marched along the westerly route that lay directly before
them by Tilly and Mont St Guibert. They marched past Wavre itself, and
bivouacked about midday of Saturday the 17th, round about the village of
Bierges, on the other side of the river Dyle.

The Second Corps followed the First, and ended its march on the southern
side of Wavre, round about the village of St Anne.

The Third Corps did not complete the retreat until the end of daylight
upon the 17th, and then marched through Wavre, across the river to the
north, and bivouacked around La Bavette.

Finally, still later on the same evening, the Fourth Corps, that of Bulow,
which had come to Ligny too late for the action, marching by the eastward
lanes, through Sart and Corry, lay round Dion Le Mont.

By nightfall, therefore, on Saturday the 17th of June, we have the mass of
the Prussian army safe round Wavre, and duly disposed all round that town
in perfect order.

With the exception of a rearguard, which did not come up until the morning
of the Sunday, all had been safely withdrawn in the twenty-four hours that
followed the defeat at Ligny.

It may be asked why this great movement had been permitted to take place
without molestation from the victors.


Napoleon would naturally, of course, after his defeat of the Prussians,
withdraw to the west the greater part of the forces he had used against
Blucher at Ligny and direct them towards the Brussels road in order to use
them next against Wellington. But Napoleon had left behind him Grouchy in
supreme command over a great body of troops, some 33,000 in all, whose
business it was to follow up the Prussians, to find out what road they had
taken; at the least to watch their movements, and at the best to cut off
any isolated bodies or to give battle to any disjointed parts which the
retreat might have separated from support. In general, Grouchy was to see
to it that the Prussians did not return.

In this task Grouchy failed. True, he was not given his final instructions
by the Emperor until nearly midday of the 17th, but a man up to his work
would have discovered the line of the Prussian retreat and have hung on to
it. Grouchy failed, partly because he was insufficiently provided with
cavalry, partly because he was a man excellent only in a sudden tactical
dilemma, incompetent in large strategical problems, partly because he
mistrusted his subordinates, and they him; but most of all because of an
original prepossession (under which, it is but fair to him to add, all the
French leaders lay) that the Prussian retreat had taken the form of a
flight towards Namur, along the eastern line of communications, while, as
a fact, it had taken the form of a disciplined retreat upon Wavre and the

At ten o'clock in the evening of Saturday the 17th, twenty-four hours
after the battle of Ligny, and at the moment when the whole body of the
Prussian forces was already reunited in an orderly circle round Wavre,
Grouchy, twelve miles to the south of them, was beginning--but only
beginning--to discover the truth. He wrote at that hour to the Emperor
that "the Prussians had retired in several directions," one body towards
Namur, another with Blucher the Commander-in-chief towards Liège, _and a
third body apparently towards Wavre_. He even added that he was going to
find out whether it might not be the larger of the three bodies which had
gone towards Wavre, and he appreciated that whoever had gone towards Wavre
intended keeping in touch with the rest of the Allies under Wellington.
But all that Grouchy did after writing this letter proves how little he,
as yet, really believed that any great body of the enemy had marched on
Wavre. He anxiously sent out, not northward, but eastward and
north-eastward, to feel for what he believed to be the main body of the
retreating foe.

During the night he did become finally convinced by the mass of evidence
brought in by his scouts that round Wavre was the whole Prussian force,
and the conclusion that he came to was singular! He took it for granted
that through Wavre the Prussians certainly intended a full retreat on
Brussels. He wrote at daybreak of the 18th of June that he was about to
pursue them.

That Blucher could dream of taking a short cut westward, thus effecting an
immediate junction with Wellington, never entered Grouchy's head. He did
not put his army in motion until after having written this letter. He
advanced his troops in a decent and leisurely manner up the Wavre road
through the mid hours of the day, and himself, just before noon, wrote a
dispatch to the Emperor; he wrote it from Sart, a point ten miles south of
Wavre. In that letter he announced "his intention to be massed at Wavre
_that night_," and begging for "orders as to how he should begin his
attack of the _next day_."

The next day! Monday!

Already, hours before--by midnight of Saturday--Blucher had sent his
message to Wellington assuring him that the Prussians would come to his
assistance upon Sunday, the morrow.

Even as Grouchy was writing, the Prussian Corps were streaming westward
across country to appear upon Napoleon's flank four hours later and decide
the campaign.

Having written his letter, Grouchy sat down to lunch. As he sat there at
meat, far off, the first shots of the battle of Waterloo were fired.

       *       *       *       *       *

So far, we have followed the retreat of the Prussians northwards from
their defeat at Ligny. With the exception of the rearguard, they were all
disposed by the evening of Saturday the 17th in an orderly fashion round
the little town of Wavre. We have also followed the methodical but tardy
and ill-conceived pursuit in which Grouchy felt out with his cavalry to
discover the line of the Prussian retreat, and continued to be in doubt of
its nature at least until midnight, and probably until even later than
midnight, in that night between Saturday the 17th, evening, and Sunday the
18th of June.

We have further seen that during the morning of Sunday the 18th of June he
was taking no dispositions for a rapid pursuit, but, being now convinced
that the Prussians merely intended a general retreat upon Brussels,
proposed to follow them in order to watch that retreat, and, if possible,
to shepherd them eastwards. He wrote, as we have just said, to the Emperor
in the course of that morning of the Sunday, announcing that he meant to
mass his troops at Wavre by nightfall, and asking for orders for the next

What the Prussians were doing during that Sunday morning when Grouchy was
so quietly and soberly taking for granted that they could not or would not
rejoin Wellington, and was so quietly shielding his own responsibility
behind the Emperor's orders, we shall see when we come to talk of the
action itself--the battle of Waterloo.

Meanwhile we must return to the second half of the great strategic move,
and watch the retreat of the Duke of Wellington during that same Saturday,
and the stand which he made on the ridge called "the Mont St Jean" by the
nightfall of that day, in order to accept battle on the Sunday morning.

An observer watching the whole business of that Saturday from some height
in the air above the valley of the Sambre, and looking northwards, would
have seen on the landscape below, to his right, the Prussians streaming in
great parallel columns upon Wavre from the battlefield of Ligny. He would
have seen, scattered upon the roads, small groups of mounted men, here in
touch with the last files of a Prussian column, there lost and wandering
forward into empty spaces where no soldiers were. These were the cavalry
scouts of Grouchy. South of these, and far behind the Prussian rear,
separated from them by a gap of ten miles, a dense body of infantry, drawn
up in heavy columns of route, was the corps commanded by Grouchy.

What would such an observer have seen upon the landscape below and before
him to his left? He would have seen an interminable line of men streaming
northward also, all afternoon, up the Brussels road from Quatre Bras; and
behind them, treading upon their heels, another column, miles in length,
pressing the pursuit. The retreating column, as it hurried off, he would
see screened on its rear by a mass of cavalry, that from time to time
charged and checked the pursuers, and sometimes put guns in line to hold
them back. The pursuers, after each such check, would still press on. The
first, the thousands in retreat, were Wellington's command retiring from
Quatre Bras; the second, the pursuers, were a body some 74,000 strong
formed by the junction of Ney and Napoleon, and pressing forward to bring
Wellington to battle.

       *       *       *       *       *

At Quatre Bras, Wellington had not been able, as he had hoped, to join the
Prussians and save them from defeat. The French, under Ney, had held him
up. He would even have suffered a reverse had Ney attacked promptly and
strongly earlier in the day of Friday the 16th, but Ney had not acted
promptly and strongly.

All day long reinforcements had come in one after the other, much later
than the Duke intended, but in a sufficient measure to meet the tardy and
too cautious development of Ney's attack. Finally, the real peril under
which the Duke lay (though he did not know it)--the junction of Erlon and
his forces with Ney--had not taken place until darkness fell, and Erlon's
20,000 had been wasted in the futile fashion which has been described and

The upshot, therefore, of the whole business at Quatre Bras was, that
during the night between Friday and Saturday the 16th and the 17th the
English and the French lay upon their positions, neither seriously
incommoding the other.

During that night further reinforcements reached Wellington where his
troops had bivouacked upon the positions they had held so well. Lord
Uxbridge, in command of the British cavalry, and Ompteda's brigade both
came up with the morning, as did also Clinton's division and Colville's
division, and so did the reserve artillery.

In spite of all these reinforcements, in spite even of the great mass of
horse which Uxbridge had brought up, and of the new guns, Wellington's
position upon that morning of Saturday the 17th of June was, though he did
not yet know it, very perilous.

He still believed that the Prussians were holding on to Ligny, and that
they had kept their positions during the night, which night he had himself
spent at Genappe, to the rear of the battlefield of Quatre Bras.[14]

When Wellington awoke on the morning of Saturday in Genappe, there were
rumours in the place that the Prussians had been defeated the day before
at Ligny. The Duke went at once to Quatre Bras; sent Colonel Gordon off
eastward with a detachment of the Tenth Hussars to find out what had
happened, and that officer, finding the road from Ligny in the hands of
the French, had the sense to scout up northwards, came upon the tail of
the Prussian retreat, and returned to Wellington at Quatre Bras by
half-past seven with the whole story: the Prussians had indeed been
beaten; they were in full retreat; but a chance of retreat had lain open
towards the north, and that was the road they had taken.

Wellington knew, therefore, before eight o'clock on that Saturday morning,
that his whole left or eastern flank was exposed, and it was common-sense
to expect that Napoleon, with the main body of the French, having defeated
the Prussians at Ligny, would now march against himself, come up upon that
exposed flank (while Ney held the front), and so outnumber the Anglo-Dutch
under the Duke's command. At the worst that command would be destroyed; at
the best it could only hope, if it gave time for Napoleon to come up, to
have to retreat westward, and to lose touch, for good, with the

In such a plight it was Wellington's business to retreat towards the
north, so as to remain in touch with his Prussian allies, while yet that
line of retreat was open to him, and before Napoleon should have forced a

[Illustration: Sketch showing the situation in which Wellington was at
Quatre Bras on the morning of the 17th.]

The Duke was in no hurry to undertake this movement, for as yet there was
no sign of Napoleon's arrival. The men breakfasted, and it was not until
ten o'clock that the retreat began. He sent word back up the road to stop
the reinforcements that were still upon their way to join him at Quatre
Bras, and to turn them round again up the Brussels road, the way they had
come, until they should reach the ridge of the Mont St Jean, just in front
of the village of Waterloo, where he had determined to stand. This done,
he made his dispositions for retirement, and a little after ten o'clock
the retreat upon Waterloo began. His English infantry led the retreat, the
Netherland troops following, then the Brunswickers, and the last files of
that whole great body of men were marching up the Brussels road northward
before noon. Meanwhile, Lord Uxbridge, with his very considerable force of
cavalry and the guns necessary to support it, deployed to cover the
retreat, and watched the enemy.

That enemy was motionless. Ney did not propose to attack until Napoleon
should come up. Napoleon and his troops, arriving from the battlefield of
Ligny, were not visible until within the neighbourhood of two o'clock. As
he came near the Emperor was perceived, his memorable form distinguished
in the midst of a small escorting body, urging the march; and the English
guns, during one of those rare moments in which war discovers something of
drama, fired upon the man who was the incarnation of all that furious
generation of arms. In a military study, this moment, valuable to civilian
history, may be neglected.

The flood of French troops arriving made it hard for Uxbridge, in spite of
his very numerous cavalry and supporting guns, to cover Wellington's

The task was, however, not only successfully but nobly accomplished. Just
as the French came up the sky had darkened and a furious storm had broken
from the north-west upon the opposing forces. It was in the midst of a
rain so violent that friend could be hardly distinguished from foe at
thirty yards distance that the pursuit began, and to the noise of limbers
galloped furiously to avoid capture, and of all those squadrons pursuing
and pursued, was joined an incessant thunder.

Things are accomplished in war which do not fit into the framework of its
largest stories, and tend, therefore, to be lost. Overshadowed by the
great story of Waterloo, the work which Lord Uxbridge and his Horse did on
that afternoon of Saturday the 17th of June is too often forgotten.

The ability and the energy displayed were equal.

The first deployment to meet the French advance, the watching of the
retirement of Wellington's main body, the continual appreciation of ground
during a rapid and dangerous movement and in the worst of weather, the
choice of occasional artillery positions--all these showed mastery, and
secured the complete order of Wellington's retreat.[15]

The pursuit was checked at its most important point (where the French had
to cross the river Dyle at Genappe) by a rapid deployment of the cavalry
upon the slope beyond the stream, a rapid unlimbering of the batteries in
retreat, and a double charge, first of the Seventh Hussars, next of the
First Life Guards.

These charges were successful, they checked the French, and during the
remainder of the afternoon the pursuit to the north of the Dyle slackened
off until, before darkness, it ceased altogether.

Indeed, there was by that time no further use in it. The mass of
Wellington's army had reached, and had deployed upon, that ridge of the
Mont St Jean where he intended to turn and give battle. They were in a
position to receive any immediate attack, and the purposes of mere pursuit
were at an end.

Facing that ridge of the Mont St Jean, where, at the end of the afternoon
and through the evening, Wellington's troops were already taking up their
positions, was another ridge, best remembered by the name of a farm upon
its crest, the "Belle Alliance." This ridge formed the natural
halting-place of the pursuers. From the height above Genappe to the ridge
of the Belle Alliance was but 5000 yards; and if a further reason be
quoted for the cessation of the pursuit and the ranging into battle array
of either force, the weather will provide that reason.

The soil of all these fields is of a peculiar black and consistent sort,
almost impassable after a drenching rain. The great paved high road which
traverses it was occupied and encumbered by the wheeled vehicles and by
the artillery. A rapid advance of infantry bodies thrown out to the right
and left of the road, and so securing speed by parallel advance, was made
impossible by mud, and the line grew longer and longer down the main road,
forbidding rapid movement. From mud, that "fifth element in war" (as
Napoleon himself called it), Wellington's troops--the mass of them at
least--had been fairly free. They had reached their positions before the
downpour. Only the cavalry of the rearguard and its batteries had felt the
full force of the storm. Dry straw of the tall standing crops had been cut
on the ridge of the Mont St Jean, and the men of Wellington's command
bivouacked as well as might be under such weather.

With the French it was otherwise. Their belated units kept straggling in
until long after nightfall. The army was drawn up only at great expense of
time and floundering effort, mainly in the dark, drenched, sodden with
mud, along the ridge of the Belle Alliance. It was with difficulty that
the wood of the bivouac fires could be got to burn at all. They were
perpetually going out; and all that darkness was passed in a misery which
the private soldier must silently expect as part of his trade, and which
is relieved only by those vague corporate intuitions of a common peril,
and perhaps a common glory, which, down below all the physical business,
form the soul of an army.

Napoleon, when he had inspected all this and assured himself that
Wellington was standing ranged upon the opposite ridge, returned to sleep
an hour or two at the farm called Le Caillou, a mile behind the line of
bivouacs. Wellington took up his quarters in the village of Waterloo,
about a mile and a half behind the bivouacs of his troops upon the Mont St

In such a disposition the two commanders and their forces waited for the

       *       *       *       *       *

There must, lastly, be considered, before the description of action is
entered on, the nature of the field upon which it was about to be
contested. That field had been studied by Wellington the year before. He,
incomparably the greatest tactical defensive commander of his time, and
one of the greatest of all time, had chosen it for its capacities of
defence. They were formidable. Relying upon them, and confident of the
Prussians coming to his aid when the battle was joined, he rightly counted
upon success.

       *       *       *       *       *

Let us begin by noting that of no battle is it more important to seize the
exact nature of the terrain, that is, of the ground over which it was
fought, than of Waterloo.

To the eye the structure of the battlefield is simple, consisting
essentially of two slight and rounded ridges, separated by a very shallow
undulation of land.

But this general formation is complicated by certain features which can
only be grasped with the aid of contours, and these contours, again, are
not very easy to follow at first sight for those who have not seen the

In the map which forms the frontispiece of this volume, and to which I
will beg the reader to turn, I have indicated the undulations of land in
pale green lines underlying the other features of the battle, which are in
black, red, and blue. The contours are drawn at five metres (that is 16
feet 4 inches) distance; no contours are given below that of 100 metres
above the sea. The valley floors below that level are shaded. Up to the
120-metre line the contours are indicated by continuous lines of
increasing thickness. Above the 120-metre line they are indicated by faint
dotted or dashed lines. I hope in this manner, though the task is a
difficult one, to give a general impression of the field.

The whole field, both slight ridges and the intervening depression, lies
upon a large swell of land many square miles in extent, while it slopes
away gradually to the east on one side and the west on the other. The
highest and hardly distinguishable knolls of it stand about 450 feet above
the sea. The site of the battle lies actually on the highest part, the
water-parting; and the floors of the valleys, down which the streams run
to the east and to the west, are from 150 to 200 feet lower than this
confused lift of land between. To one, however, standing upon any part of
the battlefield, this feature of height is not very apparent. True, one
sees lower levels falling away left and right, and the view seems oddly
wide, but the eye gathers the impression of little more than a rolling
plain. This is because, in comparison with the scale of the landscape as a
whole, the elevations and depressions are slight.

Upon this rolling mass of high land there stand out, as I have said, those
two slight ridges, and these ridges lie, roughly speaking, east and
west--perpendicular to the great Brussels road, which cuts them from south
to north. It was upon this great Brussels road that both Wellington and
Napoleon took up, at distances less than a mile apart, their respective
centres of position for the struggle. Though this line of the road did not
precisely bisect the two lines of the opposing armies, the point where it
crossed each line marked the tactical centre of that line: both Wellington
and Napoleon remained in person upon that road.

Now it must not be imagined that the shallow depression between the ridges
stretches of even depth between the two positions taken up by Wellington
and Napoleon, with the road cutting its middle; on the contrary, it is
bridged, a little to the west of the road, by a "saddle," a belt of fields
very nearly flat, and very nearly as high as each ridge. The eastern half
of the depression therefore rises continually, and gets shallower and
shallower as it approaches the road from east westward, and the road only
cuts off the last dip of it. Then, just west of the road there is the
saddle; and as you proceed still further westward along the line midway
between the French and English positions you find a second shallow valley
falling away. This second valley does not precisely continue the direction
of the first, but turns rather more to the north. In the first slight
decline of this second valley, and a few hundred yards west of the road,
lies the country-house called Hougomont, and just behind it lay the
western end of Wellington's line. The whole position, therefore, if it
were cut out as a model in section from a block of wood, might appear as
does the accompanying plan.


In such a model the northern ridge P--Q some two miles in length is that
held by Wellington. The southern one M--N is that held by Napoleon.
Napoleon commanded from the point A, Wellington from the point B, and the
dark band running from one to the other represents the great Brussels High
Road. The subsidiary ridge O--O is that on which Napoleon, as we shall
see, planted his great battery preparatory to the assault. The enclosure H
is Hougomont, the enclosure S is La Haye Sainte.

Of the two ridges, that held by Napoleon needs less careful study for the
comprehension of the battle than that held by Wellington.

The latter is known as the Ridge of the Mont St Jean, from a farm lying a
little below its highest point and a little behind its central axis. This
ridge Wellington had carefully studied the year before, and that great
master of defence had noted and admired the excellence of its defensive
character. Not only does the land rise towards the ridge through the whole
length of the couple of miles his troops occupied, not only is it almost
free of "dead"[16] ground, but there lie before it two walled enclosures,
the small one of La Haye Sainte, the large one of Hougomont, which,
properly prepared and loopholed as they were, were equivalent to a couple
of forts standing out to break the attack. There is, again, behind the
whole line of the ridge, lower ground upon which the Duke could and did
conceal troops, and along which he could and did move them safely during
the course of the action.

Anyone acquainted with Wellington's various actions and their terrains
will recognise a common quality in them: they were all chosen by an eye
unequalled for seizing, even in where an immediate decision was necessary,
all the capabilities of a defensive position. That taken up on the 18th of
June 1815, in the Duke's last battle, had been chosen, not under the
exigencies of immediate combat, but with full leisure and after a complete
study. It is little wonder, then, that it is the best example of all. Of
all the defensive positions which the genius of Wellington has made famous
in Europe, none excels that of Waterloo.



In approaching this famous action, it is essential to recapitulate the
strategical conditions which determined its result.

I have mentioned them at the outset and again in the middle of this study;
I must repeat them here.

The only chance Napoleon had when he set forward in early June to attack
the allies in Belgium, the vanguard of his enemies (who were all Europe),
was a chance of surprising that vanguard, of striking in suddenly between
its two halves, of thoroughly defeating one or the other, and then turning
to defeat as thoroughly its colleague.

Other chances than this desperate chance he had none; for he was fighting
against odds of very nearly two to one even in his attack upon this mere
vanguard of the armed kings; their total forces were, of course,
overwhelmingly superior.

He did succeed, as we have seen, in striking suddenly in between the two
halves of the allied army in Belgium. He was not as quick as he had
intended to be. There were faults and delays, but he managed, mainly
through the malinformation and misjudgment of Wellington, to deal with the
Prussians unsupported by Wellington's western wing.

He attacked those Prussians with the bulk of his forces; and although he
was outnumbered even upon that field, he defeated the Prussians at Ligny.
But the defeat was not complete. The Prussians were free to retire
northward, and so ultimately to rejoin Wellington. They took that
opportunity, and from the moment they had taken it Napoleon was doomed.

We have further seen that Grouchy, who had been sent after the Prussian
retreat, might, if he had seen all the possibilities of that retreat, and
had seen them in time, have stepped in between the Prussians and
Wellington, and have prevented the appearance of the former upon the field
of Waterloo.

Had Grouchy done so, Waterloo would not have been the crushing defeat it
was for Napoleon. It would very probably have been a tactical success for

But, on the other hand, we have no ground for thinking that it would have
been a final and determining success for the Emperor. For if Wellington
had not known quite early in the action that he could count upon the
arrival of the Prussians, he would not have accepted battle. If, as a
fact, he had found the Prussians intercepted, he could have broken contact
and retreated before it was too late.

Had he done so, it would simply have meant that he would later have
effected a junction with his allies, and that in the long-run Napoleon
would still have had to fight an allied army immensely superior to his

All this is as much as to say once more what has been insisted upon
throughout these pages; Waterloo was lost, not upon Sunday, June 18th, but
two days before, when the 63,000 of Napoleon broke and drove back the
80,000 of Blucher but failed to contain them, failed to drive them
eastward, away from Wellington, or to cause a general surrender, and
failed because the First French Army Corps, under Erlon, a matter of
20,000 men, failed to come up in flank at the critical moment.

We have seen what the effect of that failure was; we have discussed its
causes, and we must repeat the main fact for military history of all
those four days: the breakdown of Napoleon's last desperate venture turned
upon Erlon's useless marching and countermarching between Quatre Bras and
Ligny, two days before the final action of Waterloo was fought.

This being so, the battle of Waterloo must resolve itself into two main
phases: the first, the beginning of the struggle with Wellington before
the Prussians come up; the second, the main and decisive part of the
action, in which both Prussians and English are combined against the
French army.

This second phase develops continually as the numbers of the arriving
Prussians increase, until it is clinched by the appearance of Ziethen's
corps at the very end of the day, and the break-up of the French army;
this second part is therefore itself capable of considerable subdivision.
But in any large and general view of the whole action, we must regard it
as divided into these two great chapters, during the first of which is
engaged the doubtful struggle between Napoleon and Wellington; during the
second of which the struggle, no longer doubtful, is determined by the
arrival of the Prussians in flank upon the field.



_Before the Arrival of the Prussians_

The action was to take the form of an assault by Napoleon's forces against
this defensive position held by Wellington. It was the business of
Wellington, although his total force was slightly inferior to the enemy in
numbers,[17] and considerably inferior in guns, to hold that defensive
position until the Prussians should come up in flank. This he had had word
would take place at latest by one or two o'clock. It was the business of
Napoleon to capture the strong outworks, Hougomont and La Haye Sainte;
and, that done, to hammer the enemy's line until he broke it. That delay
in beginning this hammering would be fatal; that the Prussians were
present upon his flank, could arrive in the midst of the battle, and were
both confidently and necessarily expected by his enemy; that his simple
single battle would turn into two increasingly complex ones, Napoleon
could have no idea. Napoleon could see no need for haste. A long daylight
was before him. It was necessary to let the ground dry somewhat after the
terrible rain of the day before if artillery was to be used effectively;
nor did he press his columns, which were moving into position all through
the morning, and which had not completely deployed even by eleven o'clock.

It was a little after that hour that he dictated to Soult the order of
battle. Its first and effective phrases run as follows:--

"Once the whole army is deployed, that is, at about half-past one, at the
moment when the Emperor shall send the order to Marshal Ney, the attack is
to be delivered. It will have for its object the capture of the village of
Mont St Jean and the cross-roads...."

The remainder of the order sets out forces to be engaged in this first

The French forces consisted in the IInd Army Corps deployed to the left or
west of the road, the Ist to the right or east of it, and behind Napoleon,
in the centre and in reserve, the VIth Corps and the Guard.

The plan in the Emperor's mind was perfectly simple. There was to be no
turning of the right nor of the left flank of the enemy, which would only
have the effect of throwing back that enemy east or west. His line was to
be pierced, the village of Mont St Jean which lay on the ridge of
Wellington's position and which overlooks the plateau on every side was
to be carried, and this done Napoleon would be free to decide upon his
next action, according to the nature and extent of the disorder into which
he had thrown the enemy's broken line.

As a fact, Napoleon made a movement before that hour of half-past one
which he had set down in his order for the beginning of the assault. That
movement was a movement against the advanced and fortified position of

He sent orders to his left, to the body on the east of the high road, the
Second Army Corps, under Reille, to send troops to occupy the outer
gardens, wood, and orchards of the country-house, and at twenty-five
minutes to twelve the first gun fired in support of that movement was also
the first cannonshot of Waterloo.

After a brief artillery duel and exchange of cannonshots between the
height on the French left, which overlooks Hougomont, and the
corresponding height upon the English right, the French infantry began to
march down the slope to occupy the little wood which stands to the south
of the chateau. These four regiments were commanded by the Emperor's
brother Jerome, who was--as we have seen at Quatre Bras--under the orders
of Reille. The clearing of the wood was no very desperate affair, but it
was a difficult one, and it took an hour. The Germans of Nassau and
Hanover, who were charged with the defence of Hougomont and its
approaches, stubbornly contested the standing trees and the cut-clearing
which lay between them and the garden wall of the chateau.

It must be clearly seized, at this early and even premature point in the
action, that Napoleon's object in making this attack upon Hougomont was
only to weaken Wellington's centre.

Hougomont lay upon Wellington's right. Wellington had always been nervous
of his right, and feared the turning of his line there, because, should he
have to retreat, his communications would ultimately lie in that
direction. It was for this reason that he had set right off at Braine
l'Alleud, nearly a mile to the west of his line, the Dutch-Belgian
Division of Chassé and sixteen guns, which force he connected with a
reserve body at Hal, much further to the west.

Napoleon judged that an attack on Hougomont before the action proper was
begun, coming thus upon Wellington's right, would make him attempt to
reinforce the place and degarnish his centre, where the Emperor intended
the brunt of the attack to fall.

Napoleon had no other intention that history can discover in pressing the
attack against Hougomont so early. It was almost in the nature of a
"feint." But when, towards half-past twelve, his brother's division had
cleared the wood and come up against the high garden wall of the farm, for
some reason which cannot be determined, whether the eagerness of the
troops, the impulsiveness of Jerome himself, or whatever cause, instead of
being contented with holding the wood according to orders, the French
furiously attacked the loopholed and defended wall. They attempted to
break in the great door, which was recessed, and therefore protected by a
murderous cross-fire. They were beaten back into the wood, leaving a heap
of dead. At this point Reille, according to his own account (which may
well enough be accurate), sent orders for the division to remain in the
wood, and not to waste itself against so strong an outpost. But Jerome and
his men were not to be denied. They marched round the chateau, under a
heavy artillery fire from the English batteries above, and attempted to
carry the north wall. As they were so doing, four companies of the
Coldstreams, the sole reinforcement which Wellington could be tempted to
part with from his main line, came in reinforcement to the defence, and,
after a sharp struggle, the French were thrust back once more.

It was by that time past one o'clock, and this first furious attempt upon
Hougomont, unintended by the Emperor, and a sheer waste, had doubly
failed. It had failed in itself--the house and garden still remained
untaken, the post was still held. It had failed in its object, which had
been to draw Wellington, and to get him to send numerous troops from his
centre to his right in defence of the threatened place.

Meanwhile the Emperor, for whom this diversion of a few regiments against
Hougomont was but a small matter, had prepared and was about to deliver
his main attack.

The reader will see upon the contours of the coloured map a definite spur
of land marked with a broad green band in front of the French order of
battle, and further marked by the green letter "B" in the very centre of
the map. It was along this spur and at about one o'clock that the Emperor
drew up a great battery of eighty pieces in order to prepare the assault
upon the opposing ridge, which was to be delivered the moment their fire
had ceased. Napoleon at that moment was watching his army and its
approaching engagement from that summit upon the great road marked "A" in
green upon my coloured map, whence the whole landscape to the north and
west lies open.[18]

There he received the report of Ney that the guns were ready, and only
waiting for the order.

A little while before the guns were ready and Ney had reported to that
effect, Napoleon had received Grouchy's letter, in which it was announced
that the mass of the Prussian army had retreated on Wavre. He had replied
to it with instructions to Grouchy so to act that no Prussian corps at
Wavre could come and join Wellington. Hardly had the Emperor dictated this
reply when, looking northward and then eastward over the great view, he
saw, somewhat over four miles away, a shadow, or a movement, or a stain
upon the bare uplands towards Wavre; he thought that appearance to be
companies of men. A few moments later a sergeant of Silesian Hussars,
taken prisoner by certain cavalry detachments far out to the east, was
brought in. He had upon him a letter sent from Bulow to Wellington
announcing that the Prussians were at hand, and the prisoner further told
the Emperor that the troops just perceived were the vanguard of the
Prussian reinforcement. Thus informed, the Emperor caused a postscript to
be added to his dictated letter, and bade Grouchy march at once towards
this Prussian column, fall upon it while it was still upon the march and
defenceless and destroy it.

Such an order presupposed Grouchy's ability to act upon it; Napoleon took
that ability for granted. But Grouchy, as a fact, could not act upon it in
time. Hard riding could not get Napoleon's note to Grouchy's quarters
within much less than an hour and a half. When it got there Grouchy
himself must be found, and that done his 33,000 must be got together in
order to take the new direction. Further, the Emperor could not know in
what state Grouchy's forces might be, nor what direction they might
already have taken. It should be mentioned, however, to explain Napoleon's
evident hope at the moment of things going well, that _the prisoner had
told the Emperor it was commonly believed in the Prussian lines that
Grouchy was actually marching to join him, Napoleon, at that moment_.
Napoleon sent some cavalry off eastward to watch the advent of the
Prussians; he ordered his remnant of one army corps, the Sixth, which he
had kept in reserve behind his line,[19] to march down the hill to the
village of Plancenoit and stand ready to meet the Prussian attack; and
having done all this, he made ready for the assault upon the ridge which
Wellington's troops held.

That assault was to be preceded, as I have said, by artillery preparation
from the great battery of eighty guns which lay along the spur to the
north and in front of the French line. For half an hour those guns filled
the shallow valley with their smoke; at half-past one they ceased, and
Erlon's First Corps d'Armée, fresh to the combat, because it had so
unfortunately missed both Ligny and Quatre Bras, began to descend from its
position, to cross the bottom, and to climb the opposite slope, while over
the heads of the assaulting columns the French and English cannon answered
each other from height to height.

The advance across the valley, as will be apparent from the map, had upon
its right the village of Papelotte, upon its left the farm of La Haye
Sainte, and for its objective that highway which runs along the top of
the ridge, and of which the most part was in those days a sunken road, as
effective for defence as a regular trench.

Following a practice which he never abandoned, which he had found
universally successful, and upon which he ever relied, the Duke of
Wellington had kept his British troops, the nucleus of his defensive plan,
for the last and worst of the action. He had stationed to take the first
brunt those troops upon which he least relied, and these were the first
Dutch-Belgian brigade under Bijlandt. This body was stationed in front of
the sunken road (at the point marked A in red upon the map). Behind it he
had put Pack's brigade and Kemp's, both British; to the left of it, but
also behind the road, Best's Hanoverian brigade. Papelotte village he held
with Perponcher's Belgians.

It will be seen that the crushing fire of the French eighty guns
maintained for half an hour had fallen full upon the Dutch-Belgians,
standing exposed upon the forward slope at a range of not more than 800
yards.[20] At the French charge, though that was delivered through high
standing crops and over drenched and slippery soil up the slope,
Bijlandt's brigade broke. It is doubtful indeed whether any other troops
would not have broken under such circumstances. Unfortunately the incident
has been made the subject of repeated and most ungenerous accusation. A
body purposely set forward before the whole line to stand such fearful
pounding and to shelter the rest; one, moreover, which in two days of
fighting certainly lost one-fourth of its number in killed and wounded,
and probably lost more than one-third, is deserving of a much more
chivalrous judgment than that shown by most historians in its regard.
Anyhow, Kemp's brigade quickly filled the gap left by the failure of the
Netherlanders, and began to press back the French charge.

Meanwhile the French right, which had captured Papelotte, was compelled to
retreat upon seeing the centre thus driven back, while the French left had
failed to carry the farm of La Haye Sainte. Indeed upon this side, that
is, in the neighbourhood of the great road, the check and reverse to the
French assault had been more complete than elsewhere. An attempt to drive
its first success home with a cavalry charge had been met by a
countercharge, deservedly famous, in which, among other regiments, the
First and Second Lifeguards, the Blues, the King's Dragoons, had broken
the French horse and followed up the French retirement down the slope. The
centre of that retirement was similarly charged by the Scots Greys; and in
the end of the whole affair the English horsemen rode up to the spur where
the great battery stood, sabred the gunners, and then, being thus advanced
so uselessly and so dangerously from their line, were in their turn driven
back to the English positions with bad loss.

When this opening chapter of the battle closed, the net result was that
the initial charge of the First Corps under Erlon had failed. It had left
behind it many prisoners; certain guns which had advanced with it had been
put out of action; it had lost two colours.

Save for the furious inconsequent and almost purposeless fighting that was
still raging far off to the left round Hougomont, the battle ceased. The
valley between the opposing forces was strewn with the dead and dying, but
no formed groups stood or moved among the fallen men. The swept slopes had
all the appearance during that strange halt of a field already lost or
won. The hour was between three and half-past in the afternoon, and so
ended the first phase of the battle of Waterloo. It had lasted rather
over two hours.


The second and decisive phase of the battle of Waterloo differed from the
first in this: In the first phase Napoleon was attacking Wellington's
command alone. It was line against line. By hammering at the line opposed
to him on the ridge of the Mont St Jean, Napoleon confidently expected to
break it before the day should close. His first hammer blow, which was the
charge of the First Army Corps under Erlon, had failed, and failed badly.
The cavalry in support of that infantry charge had failed as well as their
comrades, and the British in their turn had charged the retiring French,
got right into their line, sabred their gunners, only to be broken in
their turn by the counter-effort of further French horse.

This first phase had ended in a sort of halt or faint in the battle, as I
have described.

The second phase was a very different matter. It developed into what were
essentially two battles. It found Napoleon fighting not only against
Wellington in front of him, but against Blucher to his right and almost
behind him. It was no longer a simple business of hammering with the whole
force of the French army at the British and their allies upon the ridge in
front, but of desperately attempting to break the Anglo-Dutch line against
time, with diminishing and perpetually reduced forces; with forces
perpetually reduced by the necessity of sending more and more men off to
the right to resist, if it were possible, the increasing pressure of the
accumulating Prussian forces upon the right flank of the French.

This second phase of the action at Waterloo began in the neighbourhood of
four o'clock.

It is true that the arriving Prussians had not yet debouched from the
screen of wood that hid them two and a half miles away to the east, but at
that hour (four o'clock) the heads of their columns were all ready to
debouch, and the delay between their actual appearance upon the field and
the beginning of the second half of the battle was not material to the

That second half of the action began with a series of great cavalry
charges which the Emperor had not designed, and which, even as he watched
them, he believed would be fatal to him. As spectacles, these famous
rides presented the most awful and memorable pageant in the history of
modern war; as tactics they were erroneous, and grievously erroneous.

Before this second phase of the battle was entered it was easily open to
Napoleon, recognising the Prussians advancing and catching no sight of
Grouchy, to change his plan, to abandon the offensive, to stand upon the
defensive along the height which he commanded, there to await Grouchy,
and, if Grouchy still delayed, to maintain the chances of an issue which
might at least be negative, if he could prevent its being decisively

But even if such a conception had passed through the Emperor's mind,
military science was against it. If ever those opposed to him had full
time to concentrate their forces he would, even with the reinforcement of
Grouchy, be fighting very nearly two to one. His obvious, one might say
his necessary, plan was to break Wellington's line, if still it could be
broken, before the full pressure of the arriving Prussians should be felt.
Short of that, there could be nothing but immediate or ultimate disaster.

We shall see how, much later in the action, yet another opportunity for
breaking away, and for standing upon the defensive, or for retreating,
was, in the opinion of some critics, offered to the Emperor by fate.

But we shall see how, upon that second and later occasion in the day, his
advantage in so doing was even less than it was now between this hour of
half-past three and four o'clock, when he determined to renew the combat.

He first sent orders to Ney to make certain of La Haye Sainte, to clear
the enemy from that stronghold, which checked a direct assault upon the
centre, and then to renew the general attack.

La Haye Sainte was not taken at this first attempt. The French were
repelled; the skirmishers, who were helping the direct attack by mounting
the slope upon its right, were thrown back as well, and after this
unsuccessful beginning of the movement the guns were called upon to
prepare a further and more vigorous assault upon a larger scale. Not only
the first great battery of eighty guns, but many of the batteries to the
west of the Brussels road (which had hitherto been turned upon Hougomont
and the English guns behind that position) were now directed upon the
centre of the English line, and there broke out a cannonade even more
furious than the one which had opened the action at one o'clock. Men
trained in a generation's experience of war called it the most furious
artillery effort of their time; and never, perhaps, even in the career of
the Gunner who was now in the last extremity of his fate, had guns better
served him.

Under the battering of that discharge the front of Wellington's command
was partially withdrawn behind the cover of the ridge. A stream of
wounded, mixed with not a few men broken and flying, began to swell
northward up the Brussels road; and Ney, imagining from such a sight that
the enemy's line wavered, committed his capital error, and called upon the
cavalry to charge.

Wellington's line was not wavering. For the mass of the French cavalry to
charge at such a moment was to waste irreparably a form of energy whose
high potential upon the battlefield corresponds to a very rapid
exhaustion, and which, invaluable against a front shaken and doubtful, is
useless against a front still solid.

It was not and could not have been the Emperor who ordered that false
step. It is even uncertain whether the whole body of horsemen that moved
had been summoned by Ney, or whether the rearmost did not simply follow
the advance of their fellows. At any rate, the great group of mounted
men[21] which lay in reserve behind the First Army Corps, and to the west
of the road, passed in its entirety through the infantry, and began to
advance at the trot down the valley for the assault upon the opposite

I repeat, it is not certain whether Ney called upon all this mass of
cavalry and deliberately risked the waste of it in one blow. It is more
probable that there was some misunderstanding; that Desnoettes' command,
which was drawn up behind Milhaud's, followed Milhaud's, under the
impression that a general order had been given to both; that Ney, seeing
this extra body of horse following, imagined Napoleon to have given it
orders. At any rate, Napoleon never gave such orders, and, from the height
upon which he stood, could not have seen the first execution of them, for
the first advance of that cavalry was hidden from him by a slight lift of

There were 5000 mounted men drawn up in the hollow to the west of the
Brussels road for the charge. It was not until they began to climb the
slope that Napoleon saw what numbers were being risked, and perceived the
full gravity of Ney's error.

To charge unshaken infantry in this fashion, and to charge it without
immediate infantry support, was a thing which that master of war would
never have commanded, and which, when he saw it developing under the
command of his lieutenant, filled him with a sense of peril. But it was
too late to hesitate or to change the disposition of this sudden move. The
5000 climbed at a slow and difficult trot through the standing crops and
the thick mud of the rising ground, suffered--with a moment's
wavering--the last discharge of the British guns, and then, on reaching
the edge of the plateau, spurred to the gallop and charged.

It was futile. They passed the line of guns (the gunners had orders to
abandon their pieces and to retire within the infantry squares); they
developed, in too short a start, too slight an impetus; they seethed, as
the famous metaphor of that field goes, "like angry waves round rocks";
they lashed against every side of the squares into which the allied
infantry had formed. The squares stood.

Wellington had had but a poor opinion of his command. It contained,
indeed, elements more diverse and raw material in larger proportion than
ever he, or perhaps any other general of the great wars, had had to deal
with, but it was infantry hitherto unshaken; and the whole conception of
that false movement, the whole error of that cavalry action, lay in the
idea that the allied line had suffered in a fashion which it had been very
far from suffering. Nothing was done against the squares; and the firmest
of them, the nucleus of the whole resistance, were the squares of British
infantry, three deep, against which the furious close-sabring, spurring,
and fencing of sword with bayonet proved utterly vain. Upon this mass of
horsemen moving tumultuous and ineffectual round the islands of foot
resisting their every effort, Uxbridge, gathering all his cavalry,
charged, and 5000 fresh horse fell upon the French lancers and
cuirassiers, already shredded and lessened by grape at fifty yards and
musket fire at ten. This countercharge of Uxbridge's cleared the plateau.
The French horsemen turned bridle, fled to the hollow of the valley again,
and the English gunners returned to their pieces. The whole fury of the
thing had failed.

But it had failed only for a moment. What remained of the French horse
reformed and once again attempted to charge. Once again, for all their
gravely diminished numbers, they climbed the slope; once again the squares
were formed, and the torment of horsemen round about them struck once

Seen from the point where Napoleon stood to the rear of his line, the high
place that overlooked the battlefield, it seemed to eyes of less genius
than his own that this second attempt had succeeded. Indeed, its fierce
audacity seemed to other than the French observers at that distance to
promise success. The drivers of the reserve batteries in the rear of
Wellington's line were warned for retreat, and Napoleon, reluctant, but
pressed by necessity, seeing one chance at last of victory by mere shock,
himself sent forward a reserve of horse to support the distant cuirassiers
and lancers. He called upon Kellerman, commanding the cavalry of the
Guard, to follow up the charge.

He knew how doubtful was the success of this last reinforcement, for he
knew how ill-judged had been Ney's first launching of that great mass of
horse at an unbroken enemy; but, now that the thing was done, lest,
unsupported, it should turn to a panic which might gain the whole army, he
risked almost the last mounted troops he had and sent them forward,
acting thus like a man throwing good money after bad for fear that all may
be lost.

A better reason still decided Napoleon so to risk a very desperate chance,
and to hurl Kellerman upon the heels of Milhaud. That reason was the
advent, now accomplished, of the Prussians upon his right, and the
necessity, imperative and agonised, of breaking Wellington's line before
the whole strength of the newcomers should be felt upon the French flank
and rear.

Let us turn, then, and see how far and with what rapidity the Prussians at
this moment--nearly half-past five o'clock--had accomplished their

       *       *       *       *       *

Of the four Prussian corps d'armée bivouacked in a circle round Wavre, and
unmolested, as we have seen, by Grouchy, it was the fourth, that of Bulow,
which was given the task of marching first upon the Sunday morning to
effect the junction with Wellington. It lay, indeed, the furthest to the
east of all the Prussian army,[22] but it was fresh to the fight, for it
had come up too late to be engaged at Ligny. It was complete; it was well

The road it had to traverse was not only long, but difficult. The passage
of the river Lasne had to be effected across so steep a ravine and by so
impassable a set of ways that the modern observer, following that march as
the present writer has followed it, after rain and over those same fields
and roads, is led to marvel that it was done in the time which Blucher's
energy and the traditional discipline of the Prussian soldiers found
possible. At any rate, the heads of the columns were on the Waterloo edge
of the Wood of Fischermont[23] (or Paris) before four o'clock, and ready
to debouch. Wellington had expected them upon the field by two o'clock at
latest. They disappointed him by two hours, and nearly three, but the
miracle is that they arrived when they did; and it is well here to
consider in detail this feat which the Fourth Prussian Army Corps had
accomplished, for it is a matter upon which our historians of Waterloo are
often silent, and which has been most unfortunately neglected in this

The Fourth Prussian Army Corps, under Bulow, lay as far east as Liège
when, on the 14th of June, Napoleon was preparing to cross the Sambre.
Its various units were all in the close neighbourhood of the town, so none
of them were spared much of the considerable march which all were about to
undertake to the west; even its most westward detachment was no more than
three miles from Liège city.

Bulow should have received the order to march westward at half-past ten on
the morning of the 15th. The order, as we have seen in speaking of Ligny,
was not delivered till the evening of that day. The Fourth Army Corps was
told to concentrate in the neighbourhood of Hannut and a little east of
that distant point. The corps, as a whole, did not arrive until the early
afternoon of Friday the 16th.

It is from this point--Hannut--that the great effort begins.

Bulow, it must be remembered, commanded no less than 32,000 men. The
fatigues and difficulties attendant upon the progress of such a body, most
of it tied to one road, will easily be appreciated.

During the afternoon of the 16th, while Ligny was being fought, he
advanced the whole of this body to points immediately north and east of
Gembloux. Not a man, therefore, of his great command had marched less than
twenty miles, many must have marched over twenty-five, upon that Friday

Then followed the night during which the other three defeated corps fell
back upon Wavre.

That night was full of their confused but unmolested retreat. With the
early morning of the Saturday Bulow's 32,000 fell back along a line
parallel to the general retirement, and all that day they were making
their way by the cross-country route through Welhain and Corroy to Dion Le

This task was accomplished through pouring rain, by unpaved lanes and
through intolerable mud, over a distance of close on seventeen miles for
the hardest pushed of the troops, and not less than thirteen for those
whom the accident of position had most spared.

The greater part of the Fourth Corps had spent the first night in the
open; all of it had spent the second night upon the drenched ground. Upon
the _third_ day, the Sunday of Waterloo, this force, though it lies
furthest from the field of Waterloo of all the Prussian forces, is picked
out to march first to the aid of Wellington, because it as yet has had no
fighting and is supposed to be "fresh." On the daybreak, therefore, after
bivouacking in that dreadful weather, Bulow's force is again upon the
move. It does not get through Wavre until something like eight o'clock,
and the abominable conditions of the march may be guessed from the fact
that its centre did not reach St Lambert until one o'clock, nor did the
last brigade pass through that spot until three o'clock. Down the steep
ravine of the Lasne and up on the westward side of it was so hard a
business that, as we have seen, the brigades did not begin to debouch from
the woods at the summit until after four o'clock. It was not until after
five o'clock that the last brigade, the 14th, had come up in line with the
rest upon the field of Waterloo, having moved, under such abominable
conditions of slow, drenched marching, another fifteen miles.

In about forty-eight hours, therefore, this magnificent piece of work had
been accomplished. It was a total movement of over fifty miles for the
average of the corps--certainly more than sixty for those who had marched
furthest--broken only by two short nights, and those nights spent in the
open, one under drenching rain. The whole thing was accomplished without
appreciable loss of men, guns, or baggage, and at the end of it these men
put up a fight which was the chief factor in deciding Waterloo.

Such was the supreme effort of the Fourth Prussian Army Corps which
decided Waterloo.

There are not many examples of endurance so tenacious and organisation so
excellent in the moving so large a body under such conditions in the whole
history of war.

       *       *       *       *       *

When the Fourth Prussian Corps debouched from the Wood of Fischermont and
began its two-mile approach towards his flank, Napoleon, who had already
had it watched by a body of cavalry, ordered Lobau with the Sixth French
Army Corps, or rather with what he had kept with him of the Sixth Army
Corps, to go forward and check it.

It could only be a question of delay. Lobau had but 10,000 against the
30,000 which Bulow could ultimately bring against him when all his
brigades had come up; but delay was the essential of the moment to
Napoleon. To ward off the advancing Prussian pressure just so long as
would permit him to carry the Mont St Jean was his most desperate need.
Lobau met the enemy, three to two, in the hollow of Plancenoit,[24] was
turned by such superior numbers, and driven from the village.

All this while, during the Prussian success which brought that enemy's
reinforcement nearer and nearer to the rear of the French army and to the
Emperor's own standpoint, the wasted though magnificent action of the
French cavalry was continuing against Wellington's right centre, west of
the Brussels road. Kellerman had charged for the third time; the plateau
was occupied, the British guns abandoned, the squares formed. For the
third time that furious seething of horse against foot was seen from the
distant height of the Belle Alliance. For the third time the sight carried
with it a deceptive appearance of victory. For the third time the cavalry
charge broke back again, spent, into the valley below. Ney, wild as he had
been wild at Quatre Bras, failing in judgment as he had failed then,
shouted for the last reserve of horse, and forgot to call for that 6000
untouched infantry, the bulk of Reille's Second Corps, which watched from
the height of the French ridge the futile efforts of their mounted

Folly as it was to have charged unbroken infantry with horse alone, the
charges had been so repeated and so tenacious that, _immediately_
supported by infantry, they might have succeeded. If those 6000 men of
Reille's, the mass of the Second Army Corps, which stood to arms unused
upon the ridge to the west of the Brussels road, had been ordered to
follow hard upon the last cavalry charge, Napoleon might yet have snatched
victory from such a desperate double strain as no general yet in military
history has escaped. He might conceivably have broken Wellington's line
before that gathering flood of Prussians to the right and behind him
should have completed his destruction.

But the moment was missed. Reille's infantry was not ordered forward until
the defending line had had ample time to prepare its defence; until the
English gunners were back again at their pieces, and the English squares
once more deployed and holding the whole line of their height.

It is easy to note such errors as we measure hours and distances upon a
map. It is a wonderment to some that such capital errors appear at all in
the history of armies. Those who have experience of active service will
tell us what the intoxication of the cavalry charges meant, of what blood
Ney's brain was full, and why that order for the infantry came too late.
Of the 6000 infantry which attempted so belated a charge, a quarter was
broken before the British line was reached, and that assault, in its turn,

At this point in the battle, somewhat after six o'clock, two successes on
the part of the French gave them an opportunity for their last disastrous
effort, and introduced the close of the tragedy.

The first was the capture of La Haye Sainte, the second was the recapture
of Plancenoit.

La Haye Sainte, standing still untaken before the very front of
Wellington's line, must be captured if yet a further effort was to be
attempted by Napoleon. Major Baring had held it with his small body of
Germans all day long. Twice had he thrust back a general assault, and
throughout more than five hours he had resisted partial and equally
unsuccessful attacks. Now Ney, ordered to carry it at whatever cost,
brought up against it a division, and more than a division. The French
climbed upon their heaped dead, broke the doors, shot from the walls, and,
at the end of the butchery, Baring with forty-two men--all that was left
him out of nine companies--cut his way back through to the main line, and
the farm was taken. Hougomont, on the left, round which so meaningless a
struggle had raged all day long, was never wholly cleared of its
defenders, but the main body of it was in flames, and with the capture of
La Haye Sainte the whole front was free for a final attack at the moment
which Napoleon should decide.

Meanwhile, at Plancenoit, further French reinforcements had recaptured the
village and again lost it. The Sixth Corps had given way before the
Prussian advance, as we have seen. The next French reinforcements, though
they had at first thrust the Prussians back, in turn gave way as the last
units of the enemy arrived, and the Prussian batteries were dropping shot
right on to the fields which bordered the Brussels road.

Napoleon took eleven battalions of the Guard (the Imperial Guard was his
reserve, and had not yet come into action[25]) and drew them up upon his
flank to defend the Brussels road; with two more battalions he reinforced
the wavering troops in Plancenoit. They cleared the enemy out of the
village with the bayonet, and for the moment checked that pressure upon
the flank and rear which could not but ultimately return.

It was somewhat past seven by the time all this was accomplished. Napoleon
surveyed a field over which it was still just possible (in his judgment at
least) to strike a blow that might save him. He saw, far upon the left,
Hougomont in flames; in the centre, La Haye Sainte captured; on the right,
the skirmishers advancing upon the slope before the English line; his
eastern flank for the moment free of the Prussians, who had retired before
the sudden charge of the Guard. He heard far off a cannonade which might
be that of Grouchy.

But even as he looked upon his opportunity he saw one further thing that
goaded him to an immediate hazard. Upon the north-eastern corner of his
strained and bent-back line of battle, against the far, perilous, exposed
angle of it, he saw new, quite unexpected hordes of men advancing. It was
Ziethen debouching with the head of his First Prussian Army Corps at this
latest hour--and Napoleon saw those most distant of his troops ready to
yield to the new torrent.

The sun, now within an hour of setting, had shone out again. Its light
came level down the shallow valley, but all that hollow was so filled with
the smoke of recent discharges that the last stroke which Napoleon was now
preparing was in part hidden from the Allies upon the hill. That final
stake, the only venture left, was to be use of his last reserve and the
charge of the Guard.

No combat in history, perhaps, had seen a situation so desperate
maintained without the order for retreat. Wellington's front, which the
French were attacking, was still held unbroken; upon the French flank and
rear, though the Fourth Prussian Army Corps were for the moment held, they
must inevitably return; more remained to come: they were in the act of
pressing upon the only line open to the French for retreat, and now here
came Ziethen with his new masses upon the top of all.

If, at this hour, just after seven, upon that fatal day, retreat had been
possible or advisable to Napoleon, every rule of military art demanded it.
He was now quite outnumbered; his exhausted troops were strained up to and
beyond the breaking point. To carry such strains too far means in all
things, not only in war, an irretrievable catastrophe.

But retreat was hardly possible as a military action; it was impossible as
a political one.

Napoleon could hardly retreat at that hour, although he was already
defeated, because the fury and the exhaustion of the combat, its
increasing confusion, and the increasing dispersion of its units, made any
rapid concentration and organisation for the purposes of a sudden
retirement hazardous in the extreme. The doomed body, held closer and
closer upon its right flank, menaced more and more on its right rear, now
suddenly threatened on its exposed salient angle, would fight on.

Though Napoleon had withdrawn from the combat an hour before, when Bülow's
30,000 had struck at his right flank and made his destruction certain;
though he had then, while yet he could, organised a retirement, abandoned
the furious struggle for La Haye Sainte before it was successful, and
covered with his best troops an immediate retreat, that retreat would not
have availed his cause.

The appearance of the Prussians on his right proved glaringly the nature
of his doom. Grouchy--a quarter of his forces--was cut off from him
altogether. The enemy, whom he believed to be beyond Grouchy, and pursued
by Grouchy, had appeared, upon the contrary, between Grouchy and himself.
Now Ziethen too was here.

Did Napoleon retire, he would retire before forces half as large again as
his own, and destined to grow to double his own within a few hours. His
retirement would leave Grouchy to certain disaster.

Politically, retreat was still more hopeless. He himself would re-enter
France defeated, with, at the most, half the strength that had crossed the
frontier three days before. He would so re-enter France--the wealthier
classes of which watched his power, nearly all of them with jealousy, most
with active hate--surrounded by general officers not ten of whom, perhaps,
he could sincerely trust, and by a whole society which supported him only
upon the doubtful condition of victory.

Such a retirement was ruin. It was more impossible morally even than it
was impossible physically, under the conditions of the field. Therefore it
was that, under conditions so desperate, with his battle lost if ever
battle was, the Emperor yet attempted one ultimate throw, and in this
half-hour before the sunset sent forward the Guard.

In those solemn moments, wherein the Imperial Guard formed for their
descent into that hollow whose further slope was to see their last feat of
arms, Ziethen, with the First Prussian Corps, pressed on into the far
corner the field of battle. At the far end of the long ridge of the Mont
St Jean, more than a mile away, this last great body and newest
reinforcement of the Emperor's foes had emerged from the walls and
thickets of Smohain and, new to the fighting, was already pushing in the
weary French line that had stood the carnage of six hours. It was not
enough that the Fourth Prussian Corps should have determined the day
already with its 30,000 come up from the east against him; now the
foremost battalions of the First coming up from the north were appearing
to clinch the matter altogether.

It was under such conditions of irretrievable disaster that Napoleon
played for miracle, and himself riding slowly down the valley at the head
of his comrades and veterans, gave them over to Ney for the final attack
against Wellington's line which still held the opposing slope.

It was then, at the moment when Ziethen and the men of the First Prussian
Army Corps began to press upon the north-eastern angle of the fight, and
were ready to determine it altogether, that the Guard began its ponderous
thrust up between Hougomont and La Haye Sainte, to the west of the
Brussels road. Up that fatal hill, which had seen the four great cavalry
charges, and more recently the breaking of the Second Corps, the tall men,
taller for the bearskins and the shouldered musket, the inheritors of
twenty-two victorious and now immortal years, leant forward, advancing. To
the hanging smoke of the cannon in the vale was added the rising mist of
evening; and when the furious cannonade which was to support their attack
had ceased with their approach to the enemy's line, a sort of silence fell
upon the spectators of that great event.

The event was brief.

It was preceded by a strange sight: a single horseman galloped unharmed
from the French to the English line (a captain); he announced to the enemy
the approaching movement of the Guard. He was a hater of the flag and of
the Revolution, and of its soldier: he was for the old Kings.

There was no need for this dramatic aid. The lull in the action,
Napoleon's necessity for a last stroke, possibly through the mist and
smoke the actual movement of the Guard, were apparent. The infantry whom
Wellington had retired behind the ridge during the worst of the artillery
preparation was now set forward again. It was the strongest and the most
trusted of his troops whom Wellington posted to receive the shock--Adams'
brigade and the brigade of Guards. Three batteries of the reserve were
brought forward, with orders not to reply to the French cannon, but to
fire at the advancing columns of the charge.

As the Guard went upward, the whole French front to the right moved
forward and supported the attack. But upon the left, the Second Army
Corps, Reille's recently broken 6000, could not yet move. They came far
behind and to the west of the Brussels road; the Guard went up the slope

At two hundred yards from the English line the grape began to mow through
them. They closed up after each discharge. Their advance continued

Of the four columns,[26] that nearest to the Brussels road reached,
touched, and broke the line of the defenders. Its strength was one
battalion, yet it took the two English batteries, and, in charging
Halkett's brigade, threw the 30th and the 73rd into confusion. It might
have been imagined for one moment that the line had here been pierced, but
this first and greatest chance of success was defeated, and with it all
chances, for it is the head of a charge that tells.

The reader will have seen upon the map, far off to the west or left, at
Braine l'Alleud, a body of reserve, Belgian, which Wellington had put so
far off in the mistaken notion that the French would try to turn him in
that direction. This force of 3000 men with sixteen guns Wellington had
recalled in the last phases of the battle. It was their action, and
especially that of their artillery, that broke this first success of the
Guard. The Netherlanders charged with the bayonet to drive home the effect
of their cannon, and the westernmost column of the French attack was

As the four columns were not all abreast, but the head of the first a
little more forward than that of the second, the head of the second than
that of the third, and so forth, the shock of the French guard upon the
British came in four separate blows, each delivered a few moments later
than the last.

We have seen how the Dutch broke the first column.

The second column, which attacked the right of Halkett's brigade, failed
also. The 33rd and 69th wavered indeed, but recovered, and their recovery
was largely due to the personal courage of their chief.

The next column, again, the third, came upon the British Guards; and the
Guards, reserving their fire until the enemy were at a stone's-throw,
fired point-blank and threw the French into confusion. During that
confusion the brigade of Guards charged, pursued the enemy part of the way
down the slope, were closed upon by the enemy and driven back again to the

The fourth column of the French was now all but striking the extremity of
the British line. Here Adams' brigade, a battalion of the 95th, the 71st,
and the 52nd regiments, awaited the blow.

The 52nd was the inmost of the three.

It stood just where the confusion of the Guards as they were thrown back
up the hill joined the still unbroken ranks of Adams' extremity of the
British line.

The 52nd determined the crisis of that day. And it was then precisely that
the battle of Waterloo was decided, or, to be more accurate, this was the
moment when the inevitable breaking-point appeared.

Colborne was its commander. Instead of waiting in the line, he determined
to run the very grave risk of leaving it upon his own initiative, and of
playing a tremendous hazard; he took it upon himself to bring the 52nd
out, forward in advance of and perpendicular to the defending line, and so
to bring a flank fire upon the last French charge.


The peril was very great indeed. It left a gap in the English line; the
possibility, even the chance, of a French advance to the left against that
gap and behind the 52nd meant ruin. It was the sort of thing which, when
men do it and fail, is quite the end of them. Colborne did it and
succeeded. No French effort was made to the left of the 52nd. It had
therefore but its front to consider; it wheeled round, left that
dangerous gap in the English line, and poured its fire in flank upon the
last charge of the fourth French column. That fire was successful. The
assault halted, wavered, and began to break.

The French line to the right, advancing in support of the efforts of the
Guard, saw that backward movement, and even as they saw it there came the
news of Ziethen's unchecked and overwhelming pressure upon the north-east
of the field, a pressure which there also had at last broken the French

The two things were so nearly simultaneous that no historical search or
argument will now determine the right of either to priority. As the French
west of the Brussels road gave way, the whole English line moved together
and began to advance. As the remnants of the First French Army Corps to
the east of the Brussels road were struck by Ziethen _they_ also broke. At
which point the first flexion occurred will never be determined.

The host of Napoleon, stretched to the last limit, and beyond, snapped
with the more violence, and in those last moments of daylight a complete
confusion seized upon all but two of its numerous and scattered units.

Those two were, first, certain remnants of the Guard itself, and secondly,
Lobau's troops, still stubbornly holding the eastern flank.

Squares of the Old Guard, standing firm but isolated in the flood of the
panic, checked the pursuit only as islands check a torrent. The pursuit
still held. All the world knows the story of the challenge shouted to
these veterans, and of Cambronne's disputed reply just before the musket
ball broke his face and he fell for dead. Lobau also, as I have said, held
his troops together. But the flood of the Prussian advance, perpetually
increasing, carried Plancenoit; the rear ranks of the Sixth Army Corps,
thrust into the great river of fugitives that was now pouring southward in
panic down the Brussels road, were swept away by it and were lost; and at
last, as darkness fell, the first ranks also were mixed into the mass of
panic, and the Imperial army had ceased to exist.

There was a moon that night; and hour after hour the Prussian cavalry, to
whom the task had been entrusted, followed, sabring, pressing, urging the
rout. Mile after mile, past the field of Quatre Bras itself, where the
corpses, stripped by the peasantry, still lay stark after those two days,
the rush of the breakdown ran. Exhaustion had weakened the pursuers before
fear had given way to fatigue with the pursued; and when the remnants of
Napoleon's army were past the Sambre again, not 30,000 disjointed,
unorganised, dispersed, and broken men had survived the disaster.[27]



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[1] I use the word "English" here to emphasise the character of
Wellington's command; for though even this second half of the allied line
was not in its majority of British origin, yet it contained a large
proportion of British troops; the commander was an Englishman, the Duke of
Wellington, and the best elements in the force were from these islands.

[2] Rather more than 106,000; guns 204.

[3] Surely an error in judgment, for thus the whole mass of the army, all
of it except the First and Second Corps, would be crossing the Sambre at
that one place, with all the delay such a plan would involve. As a fact,
the Fourth Corps, or right wing of the advance, was at last sent over the
river by Châtelet, but it would have been better to have given such orders
at the beginning.

[4] There were some five hundred Prussian prisoners.

[5] See _ante_, pp. 27 and 32.

[6] A lengthy digression might here be admitted upon the question of how
defence against aerial scouting will develop. That it will develop none
can doubt. Every such advantage upon the part of one combatant has at last
been neutralised by the spread of a common knowledge and a common method
to all.

[7] To be accurate, not quite five-twelfths.

[8] It is worth remarking that Perponcher had been told by Wellington,
when he first heard of Napoleon's approach, to remain some miles off to
the west at Nivelles. Wellington laboured, right up to the battle of
Waterloo, under the fantastic impression that the French, or a
considerable body of them, were, for some extraordinary reason, going to
leave the Brussels road, go round westward and attack his _right_. He was,
as might be expected of a defensive genius, nervous for his
communications. Luckily for Wellington, Perponcher simply disobeyed these
orders, left Nivelles before dawn, was at Quatre Bras before sunrise, and
proceeded to act as we shall see above.

[9] Or at the most sixteen.

[10] This first division of the Guards consisted of the two brigades of
Maitland and of Byng.

[11] Let it be remembered, for instance, that Ziethen's corps, which
helped to turn the scale at Waterloo, two days later, only arrived, on the
field of battle _less than half an hour before sunset_.

[12] I have in this map numbered separate corps and units from one to ten,
without giving them names. The units include the English cavalry and
Dornberg's brigade, with the Cumberland Hussars, the First, Second, Third,
and Fifth Infantry Divisions, the corps of Brunswick, the Nassauers, and
the Second and Third Netherlands Divisions. All of these ultimately
reached Quatre Bras with the exception of the Second Infantry Division.

[13] In which 15,000, as accurate statistics are totally lacking, and the
whole thing is a matter of rough estimate, we may assign what proportion
we will to killed, to wounded, and to prisoners respectively.

[14] The reason he was thus ignorant of what had really happened to the
Prussians was, that the officer who had been sent by the chief of the
Prussian staff to the Duke after nightfall to inform him of the Prussian
defeat had never arrived. That officer had been severely wounded on the
way, and the message was not delivered.

[15] There has arisen a discussion as to the whole nature of this retreat
between the French authorities, who insist upon the close pursuit by their
troops and the precipitate flight of the English rearguard, and the
English authorities, who point out how slight were the losses of that
rearguard, and how just was Wellington's comment that the retreat, as a
whole, was unmolested.

This dispute is solved, as are many disputes, by the consideration that
each narrator is right from his point of view. The French pursuit was most
vigorous, the English rearguard was very hard pressed indeed; but that
rearguard was so well handled that it continually held its own, gave back
as good as it got, and efficiently protected the unmolested retreat of the
mass of the army.

[16] "Dead" ground means ground in front of a position sheltered _by its
very steepness_ from the fire of the defence upon the summit. The ideal
front for a defence conducted with firearms is not a very steep slope, but
a long, slight, open and _even_ one.

[17] Almost exactly ten per cent.

[18] It is from thirty to fifty feet above the spur on which he had just
ranged his guns in front of the army, some twenty-five feet higher than
the crest occupied a mile off by the allied army, and a few feet higher
than the bare land somewhat more than four miles off, upon which Napoleon
first discerned the arriving Prussians.

[19] See map opposite title-page.

[20] There is conflict of evidence as to how long the brigade was exposed
to this terrible ordeal. It was slightly withdrawn at some moment, but
what moment is doubtful.

[21] The group marked "C" upon the coloured map. It was for the most part
under the command of Milhaud, but the rear of it was under the command of

[22] See sketch opposite page 134.

[23] This is the wood upon the extreme right hand of the coloured map.

[24] In the model on p. 155 Plancenoit is not shown. It would be out of
the model, nearer the spectator, behind Napoleon's position at A, and
between A and N.

[25] The Guard as a whole had lain behind the French line in reserve all
day upon the point marked D upon the coloured map.

[26] Virtually, this advance in echelon had turned into four columns.

[27] We may allow certainly 7000 prisoners and 30,000 killed and wounded,
but that is a minimum. It is quite possible that another 3000 should be
added to the prisoners and other 5000 to those who fell. The estimates
differ so widely because the numerous desertions after the fall of the
Empire make it very difficult to compare the remnant of the army with its
original strength.

Transcriber's Notes:

Passages in italics are indicated by _underscore_.

The following misprints have been corrected:
  "prople" corrected to "people" (page 19)
  "Quartre" corrected to "Quatre" (page 49)
  "Brussells" corrected to "Brussels" (page 155)

Other than the corrections listed above, printer's inconsistencies in
spelling and hyphenation usage have been retained.

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